After years of futility, Brewers expect to win
There was a long period that began in the early 1990s when the Milwaukee Brewers were an afterthought - when 90-loss seasons trumped winning ones, and the days of Robin Yount and Paul Molitor were slowly fading into obscurity.
Then came the tipping point: A few good draft classes, a bunch of talented young position players and some bold moves to acquire pitching that resulted in a playoff berth in 2008.
Now, four years later, winning baseball is expected in Milwaukee.
"Anybody can win in a given year. It's the sustainability in that,'' said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who succeeded Dean Taylor in their front office in 2002.
"In 2007, we weren't eliminated until game 156,'' Melvin said. "In 2008 we went to the playoffs, 2009 we were in first place in July, and 2010 we had an off-year. Then the '11 playoffs and then last year, we were eliminated in game 159.''
"The main thing,'' he summed up, "is playing meaningful games in September.''
The Brewers have continually done that, even after shedding some of their biggest stars.
Last year, Melvin made the decision to trade former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels for a pair of minor leaguers and infielder Jean Segura. The year before that, the Brewers were unable to hold onto first baseman Prince Fielder, who became a free agent.
Those moves shouldn't be construed as being cheap, though.
The Brewers have certainly spent some money - this week, in fact, they gave free agent pitcher Kyle Lohse a three-year deal for $33 million.
A couple of years ago, they locked up slugging outfielder Ryan Braun with a $105 million, five-year deal that should keep him in Milwaukee through the 2020 season. Right-hander Yovani Gallardo - the staff ace - is under club control for the next three seasons.
The success this season of Braun and Gallardo, more than any others, should ultimately decide the level of success of the Brewers, who finished 83-79 and third in the NL Central last season.
Braun led the league in homers with 41 a year ago, was second in RBIs with 112 and finished third in batting with a .319 average, nearly winning his second straight MVP. He finished second to San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey in the voting.
All those numbers were cast in a skeptical light this past offseason.
The 27-year-old Braun's name surfaced in records from the now-defunct Biogenesis of America LLC clinic, which allegedly provided performance-enhancing substances to several players.
Braun issued a statement in which he said he used the clinic's operator, Anthony Bosch, as a consultant in successfully appealing a positive test after his MVP season in 2011, but otherwise has refused to answer direct questions about his connection to the lab.
"You know, I think the longer you deal with something, the easier it becomes to deal with, if that makes sense,'' he said. "Regardless of what the circumstances are, I've kind of lived this for the last year and a half, so I'm able to focus when I get on the baseball field, whether it's personal issues or family issues or a situation like this. I just come to play.''
Gallardo, meanwhile, will be counted on more than ever after Greinke was sent west, Shaun Marcum left in free agency and Randy Wolf was let go after a 3-10 season. A former All-Star, Gallardo went 16-9 with a 3.66 ERA last season and was a big reason why Milwaukee remained in contention.
Gallardo dealt with a minor groin injury during spring training, but still managed to pitch for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, and is expected to be the opening day starter.
Marco Estrada nailed down Milwaukee's No. 2 job after going 5-7 with a 3.64 ERA last season. He'll be followed by Wily Peralta, Chris Narveson and Mike Fiers in a new-look rotation.
For all the changes on the hill, most of the Brewers' lineup is intact.
Braun will be joined by Norichika Aoki and Carlos Gomez in the outfield, with Jonathan Lucroy entrenched behind the plate. And in a perfect world, Segura would be at shortstop with Corey Hart at first base, Rickie Weeks at second and Aramis Ramirez at third.
That'll be shuffled up early in the season, though. Hart won't be available until at least May after having surgery in late January to repair cartilage in his left knee.
Still, manager Ron Roenicke's bunch believes a lineup that produced more runs, homers and RBIs than any other in the majors last season can do it again, even with Hart starting on the disabled list.
"Our staff has faith that those guys can go back out there and do that again,'' Hart said, "and they proved they can. They should have a lot of confidence going forward.''
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