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Brewers feel ready to rise up in challenging Central @TracyRingolsby

PHOENIX -- With the signing of free-agent right-handed pitcher Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million deal on Jan. 26, Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin delivered a message.

It came through loud and clear. No translation was needed.

PHOENIX -- With the signing of free-agent right-handed pitcher Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million deal on Jan. 26, Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin delivered a message.

It came through loud and clear. No translation was needed.

The rest of the National League Central got it. So did the players on the Brewers' roster.

"That said that our front office and ownership felt we had an opportunity to win," said Ryan Braun, who is making the move from left to right field this spring. "They told us they believed in us. All you want is an opportunity."

So here the Brewers are in Spring Training, getting ready for the gauntlet of the NL Central, in which they finished in fourth place last year with a 74-88 record. They didn't merely finish 23 games behind division champion St. Louis. Milwaukee was 20 games behind second-place Pittsburgh and 16 games back of third-place Cincinnati.

Yeah, the NL Central that features a Cardinals team that has advanced to the postseason in four of the last five seasons, including each of the last three, winning the World Series in 2011 and losing in the World Series to the Red Sox last October.

Yeah, the NL Central that features a Reds team that advanced to the postseason in three of the last four seasons, but after a 90-win season that ended with a loss to the Pirates in the Wild Card playoff decided to relieve manager Dusty Baker of his duties.

Yeah, the NL Central that features an upstart Pittsburgh team that ended 20-year droughts for a winning season and a postseason appearance a year ago, and has a projected lineup in which first baseman Gaby Sanchez, age 30, is the old man of the starting eight position players.

And, yes, the Brewers were a combined 21-36 against those three teams last year. But, no, Milwaukee is not in awe.

"We know what's ahead of us," said catcher Jonathan Lucroy. "The Pirates are strong. Cincinnati is always strong. The Cardinals are the Cardinals. You've always got your hands full with them. We're in one of the toughest divisions in baseball."

What did the Brewers do to make up that ground between themselves and the division's top three teams?

The Brewers gave Garza the four-year deal. They signed a likely first-base platoon of Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds to Minor League deals. Milwaukee made a Rule 5 Draft selection of left-hander Wei-Chung Wang, a Taiwan native who came back from Tommy John surgery last year with Pittsburgh's Rookie League Gulf Coast League affiliate. The Brewers acquired lefty Will Smith, battling for a spot on the pitching staff, from Kansas City in a trade for outfielder Norichika Aoki, one of only three Milwaukee players who appeared in as many as 130 games last year. And they re-signed one-time closer Francisco Rodriguez, whom they dealt to Baltimore last July.

The Brewers certainly didn't overhaul the roster. But then they don't feel their roster needed to be overhauled. They just need to find a way to keep it together.

"We're not at a point where you look to rebuild," Lucroy said. "We've got several key guys in the final years of their contracts: [Aramis] Ramirez, [Rickie] Weeks and [Yovani] Gallardo. We've got the highest payroll in our history. We should feel good about where we are."

A lot of that is because, among others, Braun and Ramirez feel good about where they are. The two of them combined to start just 139 games last season. Braun was on the disabled list for 26 games because of a nerve problem in his right hand, and he then sat out a 65-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

Ramirez was limited to 85 starts because of a strained left knee that he suffered on April 5 and bothered him the remainder of the season.

"You lose guys like Braun and Ramirez, that's 60 home runs and 180 RBIs a year, easily," said Lucroy.

Ramirez added, "Take the [No.] 3-4 guys out of any team's lineup and there's going to be a problem."

The projected first baseman, Corey Hart, who was a noted quick healer and was expected back by early May a year ago at the latest after knee surgery, underwent a second knee surgery in-season and never spent a day on the active roster. He left after the season as a free agent, signing with Seattle.

"We were basically without our [No.] 3, 4 and 5 guys,'" manager Ron Roenicke said.

The injuries led to aches and pains. A Brewers lineup that led the NL with 776 runs scored in 2012 finished eighth in the NL with 640 runs scored in '13. Lucroy, who drove in 82 runs, and Carlos Gomez, who drove in 73, were the only Milwaukee players to drive in as many as 50 runs. The defense committed an NL-leading 114 errors, including the seven-man shuttle that manned first base and committed a combined 21 errors.

And none of that helped a rotation in which only three starters -- Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta and Gallardo -- made as many as 22 starts, and nine other pitchers got a chance in the fourth and fifth sports of the rotation.

That's why Garza was so important. Combine him with the return of last year's Big Three and Marco Estrada, and the Brewers have a solid starting five with three young arms waiting in the wings. Tyler Thornburg was 3-1 with a 2.03 ERA in 18 games (seven starts) last year. Johnny Hellweg was 12-5 with a 3.15 ERA at Triple-A Nashville. And Smith was 2-1 with a 3.24 ERA in 19 games with Kansas City.

"You always are going to need six to eight starters to get through the season," said Braun. "We've got six to eight who are above average, which is a big asset."

It's among a handful of reasons that the Brewers can look forward to what awaits them in 2014 with the expectation it will erase memories of 2013.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Milwaukee Brewers, Ryan Braun, Matt Garza, Jonathan Lucroy, Aramis Ramirez