NL Central repeat on Brewers' minds for '12
Braun issue weighs heavily as Crew welcomes Aramis to lineup
MILWAUKEE -- You can almost smell the cut grass at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix, where the Brewers will report for Spring Training in February as champions of the National League Central.Before they begin another march through the summer, here are 10 questions to ponder for 2012: 10. What will happen with Ryan Braun? No. 10 on our list is the No. 1 question for most Brewers fans right now. Braun reportedly faces a 50-game suspension under MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, stunning news to end of an otherwise outstanding season for the face of the franchise. He signed another record-setting contract extension that made Braun Brewers property through at least 2020. He became the team's first 30-homer, 30-stolen-base man in 41 years. He won the Brewers' first league MVP Award since Robin Yount's second such honor in 1989. Now, this. Braun has strongly asserted his innocence and word is that he's appealing the result. The timing of that appeal is so secret, even Brewers general manager Doug Melvin did not know it as of the week before Christmas. The outcome could not be more significant for Braun or for the franchise.
9. Where will Prince Fielder land?If the Braun matter is foremost on fans' minds, then Fielder is a close second. Any hope of him re-signing with Milwaukee was eliminated when reliever Francisco Rodriguez accepted arbitration at the Winter Meetings and free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez signed with Milwaukee soon thereafter. There simply isn't any money left for Fielder, who was probably out of the Brewers' range to begin with. He departs after hitting 230 Brewers home runs, second most in franchise history to Yount's 251. Fielder's 656 RBIs are sixth in club history, though he played in 151 fewer games than any player in the top five. Among Brewers with at least 3,000 plate appearances, Fielder's .390 on-base percentage is the best in club history, and his .540 slugging percentage is second to Braun's .563. He leaves a big hole in the lineup, which leads us to ... 8. Will Aramis fill Prince's shoes? The Brewers' longtime nemesis is now one of their own. Ramirez signed a three-year, $36 million contract with Milwaukee after 14 seasons with the Pirates and Cubs. His rookie season was 1998, the Brewers' first year in the NL. He presumably will replace Fielder as the Brewers' cleanup hitter, a spot Ramirez has filled for well more than half of his career plate appearances. He's averaged just shy of 29 homers and 102 RBIs in his 10 full Major League seasons -- he was limited to 82 games in 2009 by a shoulder injury suffered in a game against the Brewers. So there is a track record of production there. The Brewers hope it continues in his age 34-36 seasons. 7. Can pitching carry the Brewers again? Fielder's free agency left a huge hole to fill, one that could have represented real trouble if the Brewers did not have all five of their starters under club control for 2012. The return of Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson represented a real safety blanket for a team that won in 2011 in large part because of its quality starting rotation and (at least in the second half) shut-down bullpen. 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. 6. Will K-Rod be a happy setup man? Rodriguez expressed some honest displeasure with that role after the Brewers acquired him in July to solidify the eighth inning in front of closer John Axford. So Brewers officials offered Rodriguez arbitration after the season, positioning the club to receive two extra Draft picks when K-Rod declined and pursued a closing gig with another club. At least, that was the plan. Rodriguez accepted instead, putting him in line to return to the Brewers as one of the most expensive setup men in baseball history and forcing the club to re-examine its plan for the rest of the winter. He still could be traded by the Brewers before Opening Day but currently projects for a late-inning role with Axford and fellow newcomer Jose Veras. Melvin argues that K-Rod's surprise call made the Brewers' bullpen better, and that's probably true. And in accepting, Rodriguez essentially forfeited his right to complain about his role. It will be interesting to see if he's a happy Spring Training camper. 5. Any more extensions? At some point before or during Spring Training, the Brewers could approach representatives of starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and closer Axford about the possibility of a contract extension. Greinke and Marcum are free agents after 2012, and given the enormous price the Brewers paid to acquire each pitcher, they would probably like to keep one or both around. Axford is still under club control, but he'll be arbitration-eligible after 2012 and much more expensive. In the interest of cost certainty, the Brewers want to talk about a multiyear deal. Axford and assistant general manager Gord Ash have already had extremely preliminary discussions along those lines. 4. Will payroll top $100 million? There's a real chance it will, considering Rodriguez's high price tag and the Brewers' aggressive pursuit of Ramirez. That's a pretty stunning payroll number for a team in baseball's smallest media market, one the Brewers could not even consider without drawing three million fans in three of the past four seasons and a new television deal that will help modestly beginning in 2013. 3. Who will lead? Clubhouse chemistry is an ethereal thing, usually tied to whether you have talented players and a winning record. But leadership does play a role when a team plays 162 games over 180 days, and the Brewers find themselves without the players -- Mike Cameron, Trevor Hoffman, Craig Counsell, Mark Kotsay and to some degree Fielder -- who have been the unofficial team captains in recent seasons. Perhaps Braun will take on that role, or the hard-nosed Rickie Weeks. Someday, it could be catcher Jonathan Lucroy. For now, it's difficult to pinpoint the player Ron Roenicke could turn to for the clubhouse issues that quietly confront a manager during the season. 2. Is Mat Gamel ready for a breakthrough? He's 26 now, seven years into his professional career and he's out of Minor League options. Melvin was already discussing Gamel as a potential replacement for Fielder well before the Brewers sealed that plan by trading Casey McGehee. There's no doubt about it: This is Gamel's big break. His baseball card says he's suited for everyday play. In the Minor Leagues, he's a .304 hitter with an .873 OPS who has proved he can hit Triple-A pitching. But in the Majors, where Gamel has been used sparingly by the Brewers over parts of the past four seasons, he is a .222 hitter with a .684 OPS. The Brewers are hopeful that he'll blossom when handed a role. 1. Can they repeat? This, after all, is the bottom line. 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. The Cardinals, even without Albert Pujols, look like solid competitors, the Reds are bounce-back candidates and the Pirates continue to look better and better. The NL Central should be competitive again in 2012.