The Milwaukee Brewers hope to put a tumultuous offseason behind them, as they begin defense of their first-ever National League Central title.
The Brewers barely had time to bask in the glow of their first division title and LCS appearance in 29 years when the news broke that their National League MVP Ryan Braun had tested positive for a performance enhancing drug and could be facing a 50-game suspension.
That, coupled with the fact that the Brewers were already faced with the reality that Prince Fielder would be playing elsewhere this season, left some in Milwaukee thinking that the highlight of their baseball season would be which Nyjer Morgan personality would be showing up on a nightly basis.
Overcoming adversity, though, is nothing new to this Brewers team, who last season started 0-4 and was just 14-20 on May 8 before getting it together. In all the Brewers finished with a franchise-record 96 regular-season wins, and including the postseason, matched another record with 101 wins overall.
While Fielder did in fact leave, Braun made history by becoming the first major league player to have a positive test overturned when it was ruled that Major League Baseball failed to follow proper protocol.
Whether you agree or disagree with how that went down is a debate for a different forum.
The bottom line is that Braun will in fact be the anchor from the start on a Brewers team that once again has division title aspirations.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Milwaukee Brewers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (960) - First Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Aramis Ramirez (3B); Norichika Aoki (OF); Brooks Conrad (INF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Prince Fielder (1B), Casey McGahee (INF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Rickie Weeks (2B); Nyjer Morgan (RF); Ryan Braun (LF); Aramis Ramirez (3B); Mat Gamel (1B); Alex Gonzalez (SS); Jonathan Lucroy (C); Carlos Gomez (CF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Yovani Gallardo (RHP); Zack Greinke (RHP); Shaun Marcum (RHP); Randy Wolf (LHP); Chris Narveson (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: John Axford
MANAGER: Ron Roenicke
WHAT IMPACT WILL THE OFFSEASON HAVE ON BRAUN?
Ryan Braun became Milwaukee's first 30-homer, 30-stolen-base man in 41 years last season on his way to becoming the franchise's first league MVP Award winner since Robin Yount's second such honor in 1989.
But then things got crazy.
Braun tested positive for elevated testosterone levels, but had the results thrown out, as well as a 50-game suspension overturned because it was ruled that proper protocol was not followed. Braun then held a press conference to basically scold Major League Baseball for its mishandling of the situation when in fact he actually got off on what was basically a technicality.
Now this could go a few ways.
One is the way most people in Milwaukee are hoping for. Braun goes out there and plays with a chip on his shoulder, trying to prove all his skeptics wrong and produces a season better than the one he had last season. That, though, would be a tall task considering he led the league this past season with a .994 OPS and .597 slugging percentage and finished second with a .332 batting average, 336 total bases and 109 runs scored. He also belted 33 home runs and knocked in 111 RBI.
And of course his main source of protection is now batting cleanup in Detroit.
Or it could go another way. Outside of Milwaukee there weren't a lot of people who were buying into Braun's claims that the results were tainted. Most assume he should be thanking his lucky stars that it went the way it did, meaning he is going to draw the ire of a lot of fans in visiting ballparks.
Who knows how he'll react to that and the constant scrutiny that will come along with it?
WHO IS GOING TO REPLACE PRINCE'S PRODUCTION?
It was no surprise that Prince Fielder took his talents elsewhere this past winter. The Brewers knew early on in the process that they probably were going to have to move on from the big man, who last year hit 38 home runs and drove in 120 RBI.
So, who is going to match that production?
Well the hope is that third baseman Aramis Ramirez can be that guy. Ramirez inked a three-year, $36 deal with the Brewers this past winter after spending the last eight-plus seasons with the division rival Chicago Cubs.
Presumably Ramirez will assume Fielder's spot in the cleanup role, where he has batted for well more than half of his career plate appearances. Last season he hit .306 in 149 games for the Cubs with 26 homers and 93 runs batted in.
Over the course of his 14-year career with both Pittsburgh and Chicago, Ramirez has belted 315 homers, with 1,122 runs batted in and a .284 batting average. He was an All-Star with Chicago in 2005 and 2008, and this past season was honored with a Silver Slugger award for the first time.
But, at age 33 who knows much is left in that bat?
It is now or never for Mat Gamel, who will assume Fielder's spot in the field. Once very highly regarded prospect, Gamel has seen his star fade the past couple of seasons, the result of his pedestrian stats (.222 average, five homers and 23 RBIs in 171 at-bats) during parts of four big-league seasons.
This would be a good time for him to start realizing some of the potential that has made him a .300 hitter in the minors.
HOW GOOD IS THIS PITCHING STAFF?
The best case you can make for the Milwaukee Brewers nailing down another division title comes on the mound where they may have the best 1-through-5 starting staff and overall pitching from top-to-bottom in the National League.
It doesn't get much better than right-handers Yovani Gallardo, a proven ace who last season won 17 games to go along with a 3.52 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 207 1/3 innings; Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young Award winner, who is a contract season; and Shaun Marcum, as well as lefties Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson.
All five of those starters reached double-digit wins, and combined for the 10th-best starters' ERA (3.78), the sixth-best average against (.249) and the third-most strikeouts (857) of the 30 major league teams. Milwaukee also won all 15 of Greinke's home starts, as he and Marcum combined for 29 wins and a 3.67 ERA.
That group is helped out a lot, though, by a tremendous bullpen that sports two proven closers at the back end in John Axford and setup man Francisco Rodriguez.
In his first full season as closer last season, Axford set a club record with 46 saves. K-Rod came over from the New York Mets at the All-Star break and this offseason accepted the team's arbitration offer. It remains to be seen if ends the year with the Brewers.
X FACTOR: COREY HART: The biggest question with Corey Hart is can he stay healthy? Hart played in 145 games in 2010 and ended the year with 31 home runs and 102 RBI. Last season he was only able to play 130 contests and still hit 26 homers, but only drove in 63 runs. Without Fielder, run production is going to be key this season and Hart could be a great replacement. The only problem is that it seems to be more of the same this spring for the Brewers' right fielder. After undergoing surgery to repair three tears of the meniscus in his right knee three weeks ago, Hart was hit in the head by a weightlifting bar and needed eight stitches. Hopefully this spring is not a sign of things to come for Hart.
The Brewers are coming off their first division crown in 29 years, and the goal is to go back-to-back for the first time since 1981-82. But there are some question marks. Losing Fielder is definitely going to hurt, and who knows what kind of effect that will have on Braun, who will be facing his most difficult year as a pro. This starting staff is as solid as any as there is in the league and could be even better than last season, meaning the Brewers should still be right in the thick of a very-competitive NL Central.