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Brewers enter spring with Braun back, confidence up

Suspended OF's return, better health in 2014 are keys to contending in NL Central

MILWAUKEE -- Asked to identify his principal concern about the coming baseball season, Brewers chairman and principal owner Mark Attanasio didn't have to think more than a split second before answering.

"The No. 1 concern for us is health," Attanasio said. "I really do think we've assembled a good team here."

Poor health hampered the Brewers in 2013, months before Ryan Braun drew his suspension, and Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin are banking on better luck in the season ahead. That is why they are returning a team largely intact -- with one notable addition in starting pitcher Matt Garza, and one notable subtraction in leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki -- despite coming off the franchise's poorest showing in seven years. If the Brewers can avoid the sort of injuries that decimated the middle of their batting order on the way to that finish, Attanasio believes, his club could be a contender.

"One of the things I heard a lot this offseason was 'the Cardinals are so good and the Reds are so good and 'the Pirates are so good,'" Attanasio said, referring to Milwaukee's chief National League Central rivals. "We look at that as a challenge, that we can be real good, too. We weren't going to shrug our shoulders and say, 'Well, gee, we can't compete with these guys.' We're going to figure out how to go out and compete with these guys."

Melvin, who is usually conservative in his public pronouncements, is bullish on the Brewers' chances.

"I keep saying this because I believe it," he said at Brewers On Deck. "I say five of our eight [starting position] players are in the top 10 at their positions."

Melvin is particularly fond of the Brewers' young, controllable talent up the middle with catcher Jonathan Lucroy, shortstop Jean Segura and center fielder Carlos Gomez. Braun, who is moving to right field after playing the past six seasons in left, and third baseman Aramis Ramirez are the other two players he considers top 10 in the Major Leagues at their positions.

Because all of those players are under contract for 2014 (and beyond, for all but Ramirez), Melvin was quiet for most of the winter. They were the last team in the game to sign a Major League free agent when Garza agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract late last month, the details of which were finalized over several tense days after news broke of a pending agreement. It signaled, players said at the Brewers On Deck event Jan. 26, that Attanasio harbors high expectations.

"I just know that any time you sign one of the top starters on the market, it sends a message to the players, and hopefully the fans, that you're not going to lay down," Kyle Lohse said. "We're going to try to do some things. I think we've got a sneaky shot. We have some good young guys, and if Braun can bounce back and Aramis can stay healthy, and the young guys who got experience last year can build on that experience, we've got a legit shot."

Pitchers and catchers report

Saturday; first workout Feb. 17

Full squad reports

Feb. 21; first full-squad workout Feb. 22

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Athletics, Feb. 27 at 2:05 p.m. (CT)

Opening Day

Home vs. Braves, March 31 at 1:10 p.m. CT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Was Garza worth it?
Signing the right-hander required the richest free-agent contract in Brewers history and pushed the budget beyond previous estimates. Attanasio said the move gave the Brewers their best depth of starting pitching in his 10 years at the helm, and he dismissed concerns about Garza's medical history by touting how good the right-hander is when he's on the mound. If Garza takes the mound for 30-plus starts, his $12.5 million average annual salary (before incentives) will look pretty good.

2. Will Braun be "better than ever?"
That was the outfielder's vow at Brewers On Deck, where Braun scoffed at a question about whether his statistics will take a dive without "extra help." Despite his myriad apologies, Braun, who is moving to right field this season, said he realizes he will be under a harsh spotlight after serving a season-ending suspension last year that covered the Brewers' final 65 games. He insisted he relishes the attention, good or bad.

"As a competitor, in a really odd way, I enjoy it," he said. "I think it's fun. I think the more hostile an environment is, the more enjoyable it is."

3. Will the bullpen hold up?
Melvin made the bullpen a priority during the winter of 2012-13, and it paid off, with the Brewers ranking fifth out of the 30 Major League teams with a 3.19 ERA in relief despite John Axford losing the closer's role one week into the season. With Axford, Burke Badenhop and Michael Gonzalez departed, this year's crop of candidates boasts far less experience than recent Brewers' bullpens, a deficiency Melvin addressed just last week when he acquired former Angels and Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez for the third time. Rodriguez adds some depth behind Brandon Kintzler and Jim Henderson, who fared quite well after assuming eighth- and ninth-inning duties last season and will be counted on to handle those roles over a full season. A couple of other jobs are up for grabs in Spring Training.

2013 record
74-88, 4th in the NL Central

Projected batting order
1. SS Jean Segura:
.294 BA, .329 OBP, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 44 SB in 2013
2. CF Carlos Gomez:
.284 BA, .338 OBP, .506 SLG, 24 HR, 73 RBI, 40 SBs in 2013
3. RF Ryan Braun:
..298 BA, .372 OBP, .498 SLG, 9 HR, 38 RBI in 2013
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez:
.283 BA, .370 OBP, .461 SLG, 12 HR, 49 RBI in 2013
5. C Jonathan Lucroy:
.280 BA, .340 OBP, .455 SLG, 18 HR, 82 RBI in 2013
6. 1B Mark Reynolds:
.220 BA, .306 OBP, .393 SLG, 21 HR, 67 RBI for Indians and Yankees in 2013
7. LF Khris Davis:
.279 BA, .353 OBP, .596 SLG, 11 HR, 27 RBI in 56 games in 2013
8. 2B Scooter Gennett:
.324 BA, .356 OBP, .479 SLG, 6 HR, 21 RBI in 69 games in 2013

Projected rotation
1. Kyle Lohse, 11-10, 3.35 ERA in 2013
2. Matt Garza, 10-6, 3.82 ERA for Cubs and Rangers in 2013
3. Yovani Gallardo, 12-10, 4.18 ERA in 2013
4. Marco Estrada, 7-4, 3.87 ERA in 21 starts in 2013
5. Wily Peralta, 11-15, 4.37 ERA in 2013

Projected bullpen
Closer: Jim Henderson, 28/32 saves, 2.70 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Brandon Kintzler, 2.69 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Tom Gorzelanny, 3.90 ERA in 2013

The new guys
RHP Garza: The 30-year-old began the last three seasons with the Cubs before a July trade to Texas and owns a 3.84 ERA over parts of eight years in the Major Leagues.

LHP Will Smith: Some scouts like Smith as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, but the addition of Garza probably cemented a role in relief for 2014. That suited Smith well last year in Kansas City, where he posted a 3.24 ERA in 19 appearances (one start). He will not be 25 until July and still has five years of club control.

1Bs Reynolds and Lyle Overbay: Melvin jokes that he is eager to have a first baseman play first base for the Brewers this season. For the last two years, the Brewers have been forced to improvise, moving Corey Hart from right field to first base in 2012, then employing a mix of shortstops and third basemen and catchers in 2013 while Hart was sidelined by knee surgery. The Brewers used seven men at that position last year -- five of whom had never before played an inning at first base in the Major Leagues -- and wound up with the worst production in baseball from the position. After the season, the Brewers pursued Hart before he signed with the Mariners and James Loney before he re-signed with the Rays, then settled on Minor League deals with veterans Reynolds and Overbay. The power-hitting Reynolds has the inside track on the position despite his propensity to strike out, with fellow free-swinger Juan Francisco and Overbay, a former Brewer, pushing for playing time as well. First base will be the Brewers' most intriguing position battle in Spring Training.

RHP Rodriguez: Rodriguez, who turned 32 last month, originally came to the Brewers from the Mets via trade on the night of the 2011 All-Star Game. He accepted an arbitration offer and returned for 2012, then re-signed with Milwaukee on a Minor League contract in April 2013 when he was still looking for work, only to be traded to the Orioles in July for third base prospect Nicky Delmonico. Now, Rodriguez is back again. In 134 Brewers appearances, he has posted a 3.15 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 125 2/3 innings.


Prospects to watch
LF Davis and 2B Gennett: We're pushing the definition of "prospects" here, since Davis played for a suspended Braun in 2013, and Gennett in place of the injured Rickie Weeks. Neither Davis nor Gennett will have rookie status entering this season, but both face the challenge of reproducing their brief success over a full season -- Davis slugged .596, fourth-best among Major Leaguers with more than 50 plate appeatances; Gennett batted .324 in 69 games.

SPs Tyler Thornburg, Jimmy Nelson, Johnny Hellweg: Before the Brewers inked Garza, all three right-handers were positioned to compete for a spot in the Opening Day starting rotation, with Thornburg the leading candidate. Now they will either compete for the bullpen or go to Triple-A Nashville to stay stretched out in the event the Brewers need a replacement starter during the season.

LHP Wei-Chung Wang: Wang is 21 and pitched in rookie ball last year, but the Brewers took a flier in the Rule 5 Draft by plucking him away from the Pirates. Unless the teams can work out a trade during Spring Training, Wang will have to make the Brewers' Opening Day roster as a reliever, or be offered back to the Pirates. Milwaukee officials like his promise.

1B Hunter Morris: Morris had a chance to grab the first-base job last spring, but went 3-for-26 in the Cactus League and was sent to Triple-A instead. He will probably go there again to start 2014, but is still just 25 and has an opportunity to prove he is a long-term solution to the Brewers' search for Prince Fielder's replacement.

On the rebound
Braun and Ramirez: With Braun injured and suspended, and Ramirez dealing with a knee issue all year, they combined for 21 home runs and 87 RBIs in 2013, versus 68 home runs and 217 RBIs the season before. For the Brewers to rebound as a team, they need a return of the potent bats in the Nos. 3 and 4 holes.

2B Weeks: Weeks batted .209 with 10 home runs in 399 plate appearances before undergoing surgery in August to repair a torn hamstring. He will earn $11 million in 2014, the final guaranteed season of his four-year, $38.5 million contract, and has an $11.5 million vesting option that will become guaranteed if he has 600 plate appearances in 2014 and is healthy at the end of the season. The Brewers say Gennett earned the right to start, so it is very difficult at the moment to see where Weeks, who is probably limited to second base, will fit. Brewers officials say they will sort it out in Spring Training.

Long gone
1B Hart: He was the organization's longest-tenured player and one of its most popular, but the Brewers did not come close to matching the offer Hart received from Seattle. Given their budgetary constraints, the Brewers were hesitant about a player coming off double knee surgery.

OF Aoki: When it became clear that Davis was a big part of the 2014 plan, Aoki's agent requested a trade. Aoki would have been a free agent after the season, but the Brewers will miss his .355 on-base percentage in the leadoff hole.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy.
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