The Brewers were built to win last year, and the plan worked nearly to perfection: a franchise-record 96 wins, along with the first division title and playoff series victory since 1982. But Milwaukee's pitching and defense imploded in the postseason. Then superstar slugger Prince Fielder signed with Detroit, and even though a highly effective pitching rotation returns intact, and the Brewers upgraded at third base and hope they did at shortstop, there lingers a feeling among the Brewer faithful that all the eggs were in last year's basket. If the 2011 Brewers weren't good enough to advance to the World Series, how could this team possibly fare any better? But as last year's pennant chases demonstrated, very rarely do things go as planned in baseball.
GM Doug Melvin assembled what was arguably the best starting rotation in Brewers history last year, and all five hurlers return in 2012. In Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke, Milwaukee has two right-handed aces capable of extended stretches of dominance. A strikeout artist and workhorse, Gallardo set career bests with 17 wins, 23 quality starts and a 3.52 ERA while establishing a franchise record with his third straight 200-strikeout season. In his first season in Milwaukee, Greinke made the home folks happy by winning all 11 of his decisions at Miller Park. After a slow start, he was one of the National League's most dominant pitchers down the stretch, going 9-3 over his final 16 starts. Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum will never overpower hitters, but their command of an array of off-speed pitches is good enough to keep most lineups in check. Before a collapse of epic proportions in the playoffs, Marcum held opponents to a .232 average, eighth-best in the league. Wolf, who won 10-plus games for the fourth straight year, lived up to his reputation as a reliable innings-eater. Lefty Chris Narveson is a more than serviceable fifth starter with occasionally unhittable stuff - he began last season with 14 consecutive scoreless innings. Marco Estrada, who filled in for Greinke and Narveson during DL stints, returns as a spot starter.
Not only does John Axford's mustache hearken back to the days when Rollie Fingers patrolled the mound at County Stadium, but his ability to close out games also reminds Brewer fans of the Hall of Fame reliever. Axford made his first Opening Day roster last year and approached his opportunity fearlessly, setting a franchise record and tying for the NL lead with 46 saves. He converted his final 43 save opportunities and compiled a 0.59 ERA over his last 30 games. Francisco Rodriguez surprisingly accepted salary arbitration to remain with the Brewers. He made no secret of his desire to be a full-time closer. K-Rod excelled as Axford's setup man after a July trade (tying for NL lead with 17 holds over the duration of his stint with the Brew Crew), but whether he'll willingly play that part again this season is questionable. Kameron Loe, who bombed as the eighth inning reliever prior to Rodriguez's arrival but settled down (1.44 ERA over his last 22 appearances) afterward, and Estrada, who pitches better as a starter (3-2, 3.70) than as a reliever (1-6, 4.38) will both get their share of innings. Lefty Manny Parra returns from a full season on the disabled list, and journeyman Jose Veras, acquired from Pittsburgh, has a rubber arm and can be called on often.
Veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez was acquired with a simple mission: bring some defensive stability to the Brewer infield, which was easily the worst defensive unit in the league last year. Gonzalez hit .241 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs for the Braves last year, but most importantly, he committed only 12 errors, about half as many as departed shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. All-Star starter Rickie Weeks remains one of the game's most potent second basemen offensively, and hopes are that he'll return to the explosive form he showed in the first half of the season (17 homers before the All-Star break) before an ankle injury slowed him down significantly.
Brewers fans knew Fielder's departure was coming, but it's still hard to take. Starting at first base for the Milwaukee Brewers: Mat Gamel. Gamel has earned brief call-ups with the Brewers in each of the last four seasons but has never shown the pop against big league pitching that he has in Triple-A (team-high 28 home runs and 96 RBIs at Nashville last year). Manning the other corner position is another new Brewers starter, the team's biggest offseason acquisition, veteran slugger Aramis Ramirez. A longtime Brewer nemesis as a member of the rival Cubs, Ramirez has a reputation for being somewhat injury-prone, but he may in fact be underappreciated for his offensive production. With Fielder gone, Ramirez will face high expectations in his first year in Milwaukee.
In right, lanky Corey Hart returns for his ninth season in Milwaukee, providing doses of power and speed, though his stolen base numbers have been declining over the last four seasons as knee woes continue to slow him down. In center, Nyjer Morgan drew national attention for his unorthodox style and brash mouth (and Twitter stream), and his teammates seemed to feed off his enthusiasm. Time will tell if Morgan's aura remains a welcome diversion if he or the Brewers struggle. Earning starts against left-handed pitching is Carlos Gomez, easily the best defensive outfielder on the roster. There is no doubt that Ryan Braun, the National League MVP last season, is the linchpin of this lineup. With speed and power, Braun is a weapon on the bases as well as at the plate. One of the game's most popular young stars, Braun means everything to the Brewers, on and off the field having signed a team-friendly long-term deal that will keep the slugger in Milwaukee through 2020 with a mutual option for 2021.
In Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers have a promising young catcher with improving skills behind the plate and a solid bat. Though he's below average at throwing out base-stealers, he works well with four of the five Brewers starters, blocks balls in the dirt with the best of them (just one passed ball last year) and would seem to have his best days ahead of him. Wolf's personal catcher, George Kottaras, fits a similar profile, only as a left-handed hitter.
The Brewers' bench was nothing special in 2011 and if anything may be less promising this year. Gomez and Kottaras return in familiar roles, and veteran infielders Cesar Izturis and Brooks Conrad were acquired in the offseason and will provide experience off the bench. Norichika Aoki, who was signed to a multi-year deal in January, will be the fourth outfielder.
Roenicke's style couldn't have been much more different than predecessor Ken Macha's, and the softer touch turned out to be just what the Brewers needed in 2011 (a revamped and dramatically improved pitching staff didn't hurt, either). But while Roenicke guided the Brewers to the best regular season in franchise history, he appeared a bit overmatched in the postseason. Owner Mark Attanasio continues to show a willingness to spend money in a small market, and Melvin has cultivated home-grown talent and traded prospects to give the Brewers a chance to win. In all, the Brewers are as well-run now as at any time in franchise history.
This team likely won't win as many games as last year's, but the Brewers don't have to look very far to see that that might not matter. Just as the Cardinals rode into to the postseason as a red-hot Wild Card last season, this Brewer team has the talent to stay in the hunt.
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Injuries are always an issue with Weeks, but when healthy, he's among top hitters in the game.
CF Nyjer Morgan (L)
Mercurial energizer gets on base for big boppers, antagonizes friends and foes alike.
LF Ryan Braun (R)
NL MVP no longer has Prince Fielder following him in the lineup.
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
Brewers landed top free agent third basemen, and will need Ramirez to put up typical numbers.
RF Corey Hart (R)
Speed is declining, and knee is balky this spring.
1B Mat Gamel (L)
Gets unenviable job of filling Prince Fielder's large shoes; has put up big minor league numbers.
SS Alex Gonzalez (R)
Free agent signed to provide stability in Brewers infield; marching orders are to just make plays. Pop at the plate is a bonus.
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
A budding star at the plate, his defense is improving (just one passed ball, tops among NL catchers).
OF Carlos Gomez (R)
Defensive specialist has some pop but struggles to get on base consistently.
C George Kottaras (L)
Randy Wolf's personal catcher calls a good game; hit for cycle.
OF Norichika Aoki (L)
Career .329 hitter in five seasons in Japan; will see action as fourth outfielders.
INF Cesar Izturis (S)
The 11-year veteran is a top defender at short, second and third, but owns a career on-base percentage of .295.
UT Brooks Conrad (S)
Batted .292 vs. lefties and just .203 against righthanders.
RH Yovani Gallardo
Ace No. 1 ranked among NL leaders in wins (t-fourth), starts (t-fourth) and strikeouts (fifth).
RH Zack Greinke
Ace No. 2 posted a 2.61 ERA over his final 16 starts; ranked seventh in NL in strikeouts.
RH Shaun Marcum
Was Brewers' top starter on the road, going 8-3 with a 2.21 ERA.
LH Randy Wolf
His streak of 19.2 scoreless innings was longest by Brewers pitcher in '11.
LH Chris Narveson
Left-handed batters hit just .212, slugged .333 with two homers off him.
RH John Axford
Blew first save opportunity of season, but converted his final 43 chances.
RH Francisco Rodriguez
Ranks 24th on all-time saves list but will set up Axford if Brewers don't trade him.
RH Kameron Loe
Veteran posted a 1.44 ERA over his final 22 appearances in his third season with the Brewers.
RH Marco Estrada
Earned high marks as fill-in starter when Greinke and Narveson went on DL.
RH Jose Veras
Acquired from Pirates, appeared in 79 games with a 3.80 ERA as set-up man.
RH Tim Dillard
Middle reliever didn't see much action, but earned first big league win June 5.
LH Manny Parra
Has had ups and downs as Brewer starter and reliever, returns after missing all of '11.
RH Mike Fiers
Brewers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year (13-3, 1.86 ERA) earned September call-up.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals