MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers have a new manager and a new starting rotation, but essentially the same high expectations. That's what you get along with drawing at least 2.75 million fans for four consecutive seasons in one of baseball's smallest markets.
On paper, at least, the Brewers have better odds of meeting those lofty expectations in 2011, thanks to new manager Ron Roenicke promising to jump-start the running game, something Brewers hitters have pined for over the past two seasons, and a remade starting rotation. It's a group bolstered by newcomers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, acquired in a pair of surprising December trades, who will be guided by a new pitching coach anxious to get started.
"Any time you make an acquisition like the two guys we just got, your rotation is improved instantaneously," said Rick Kranitz, hired in October for Roenicke's staff. "I know these two guys [Greinke and Marcum] better than guys like [Yovani] Gallardo, [Randy] Wolf and [Chris] Narveson, so I know what kind of pitchers these are. When you add those pieces -- goodness, it gives you a chance to win every day."
The Brewers would settle for winning, say, on 90 out of 162 days. That's the win total that netted them the National League Wild Card in 2008, and considering the additions and subtractions in the NL Central, it's a realistic goal for next season. The Reds won the 2010 division crown with 91 wins.
Here, in no particular order at all, are 10 questions the Brewers will face along the way:
1. How good is this starting rotation?
That's the question everybody was asking after the Brewers acquired Greinke. Roenicke declined to offer his own opinion.
"It's hard to rank different rotations," Roenicke said. "We are really good. I don't want to rank them, but we are really good."
This group is at the very least better than the Brewers had under Macha. Milwaukee's starters combined for a 5.37 ERA in 2009, worst in the NL and tied with Baltimore for the worst in baseball. They only moved up one spot in the NL rankings in 2010, when Brewers starters combined for a 4.65 ERA.
Gallardo, Greinke and Marcum are all right-handers who started for their respective teams on Opening Day 2010. Wolf and Narveson are left-handers who finished last season strong for the Brewers. All five pitchers logged at least 167 2/3 innings last season and posted ERAs under 5.00, and all but Wolf averaged at least 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Greinke and Wolf each topped 200 innings, and Marcum was close at 195 1/3.
2. Who gets the ball on Opening Day?
OK, so this question isn't really important after March 31 at Cincinnati, because off-days in April almost always immediately jumble the rotation and make the designations irrelevant. But it will be very interesting to see whether Roenicke goes with Greinke, the 2009 American League Cy Young winner, or Gallardo, a '10 All-Star and the Brewers' Opening Day incumbent.
Roenicke has already been asked about it, and, not surprisingly at all, said it was a matter for a later date.
3. Will Prince Fielder bounce back?
The basis of this question will be disputed by many, who point to Fielder's .401 on-base percentage and league-best 114 walks in 2010. But his production numbers undoubtedly fell, from 46 home runs and 141 RBIs in 2009 to 32 homers and 83 RBIs in 2010, when opposing pitchers pounded Fielder with inside offerings and he kept swinging away. Macha was sure that Fielder's delay in making adjustments was directly related to the fact he was nearing free agency and that talks with the team about a contract extension were going nowhere.
4. How long will Fielder be a Brewer?
Now, those contractual matters are even more immediate. The Brewers didn't get any good offers for Fielder over the winter, so they addressed their pitching needs via other avenues. And now, Fielder appears to be a big part of the team's 2011 plans. But what happens next? There appears little hope of reaching agreement on an extension with Fielder and agent Scott Boras, so the Brewers have two choices: Either shop Fielder before the non-waiver Trade Deadline to see what they can get, or keep him all season and reap compensatory picks in the 2012 Draft. The team's early-season performance will help provide the answer.
5. Is the closer position a question mark?
Give rookie right-hander John Axford a lot of credit for the way he handled himself in 2010. He was one of the last pitchers cut in Spring Training, then returned in May and took over closer duties from a living legend, Trevor Hoffman, and never looked back. Axford converted 24 of 27 save opportunities and struck out nearly three times as many batters as he walked. He's always had a power arm, but he has not always had that kind of control. Whether he keeps those two assets working together in 2011 will determine whether he's a sophomore success.
6. Can Weeks do it again?
Second baseman Rickie Weeks stayed healthy in 2010, and look at the results: career bests in games (160), plate appearances (754, a franchise record), runs (112), hits (175), doubles (32), home runs (29) and RBIs (83). He's on the same contractual path as Fielder, though the Brewers are trying to work out an extension with agent Greg Genske. If they aren't able to strike a deal, 2011 will be an even more important season for Weeks, as he faces the prospect of cashing in via free agency.
7. Is there enough depth?
The Brewers are very good at the top of their starting rotation and the top of their lineup, and appear good enough at the back end of the bullpen. But injuries inevitably will cause some shuffling in 2011, and depth could come into play. Re-signing versatile veteran Craig Counsell was a big move, but here's guessing that Melvin adds an outfielder and a relief arm or two before the start of Spring Training.
8. How much will they really run?
Roenicke says the Brewers will run the bases so aggressively that, "At times, you're going to say, 'Why are you running so much? Why are you getting thrown out trying to take extra bases?'"
He'll make no apologies.
"That's the style I like to play," Roenicke said. "I've seen it win a lot of ballgames over the years. We're going to be aggressive from third base scoring, we're going to be aggressive from first to third, and, at times, we're going to get thrown out. But over the course of the season, I guarantee we will score a lot more runs being aggressive.
That was the line in October, and we'll see if it translates in April. The Brewers are stocked with home run hitters and play in a homer-friendly ballpark, and we've heard managers say before that they planned to play small ball.
9. Will Roenicke connect with his players?
Former Brewers skipper Macha hates the notion that he didn't connect with his clubhouse, but whatever the reason, something didn't work, especially between the manager and stars Ryan Braun and Fielder. Roenicke spoke during his Milwaukee debut about adapting to today's players, who require a much different style of communication then during his own playing days. It remains to be seen whether players respond to that more touchy-feely approach.
10. Are the Brewers the division favorites?
It's tempting to say so, but the Reds are the reigning division champs and will return largely intact. The Cardinals have an equally stacked starting rotation, topped by legitimate Cy Young Award contenders Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The Brewers would rather just be consdered contenders, and will focus on trying to play meaningful games when the calendar flips to September.