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MANAGER NED YOST fifth season with Brewers
Hall began 2006 on the bench and finished it with 35 home runs, a major-league-leading 27 as a shortstop. This season, with regular shortstop J.J. Hardy coming back from an ankle injury that forced him to sit out the second half of last year, Hall agreed to move to another premium position, centerfield. "He's looking like a natural out there in center," says Yost. "He's the total package, and he's still growing. One day Billy will contend for MVP in the National League."
Any awards Hall collects will likely come while he's in a Brewers uniform. In the off-season the club signed him to the largest contract for a position player in team history, a four-year, $24 million deal that will lock in the Nettleton, Miss., native during his prime years. Not bad for a guy who had 32 career home runs heading into last season.
Hall's meteoric rise coincides with what Milwaukee hopes will be the culmination of years of rebuilding and the end of a 25-year playoff drought. Along with 24-year-old Hardy, 22-year-old first baseman Prince Fielder, 25-year-old second baseman Rickie Weeks and 25-year-old rightfielder Corey Hart, Hall is part of a young, mostly homegrown lineup that has turned the Brewers into a dark-horse contender in the NL Central even with a modest payroll in the neighborhood of $70 million.
Though Milwaukee was expected to contend for a playoff spot last year, a slew of injuries, most notably to Hardy, Weeks and ace Ben Sheets, contributed to a fourth-place finish. (A slipshod defense, which led to 70 unearned runs, the fifth-highest total in the NL, didn't help either.) But this season the Brewers believe they have added enough talent throughout the roster to cushion themselves against any major losses. Chief among their acquisitions were righthander Jeff Suppan, fresh off an impressive postseason turn with the Cardinals (2.49 ERA in four playoff games), and former All-Star catcher Johnny Estrada, a switch-hitter who has batted .300 in two of the last three seasons. "If guys get hurt, we're better prepared to fill in the gaps and at least tread water," says righthanded starter David Bush.
Yost says young righties Carlos Villanueva and Yovani Gallardo, though not expected to break camp with the major league club, have shown enough in spring training to merit a call-up perhaps sooner rather than later. "Yovani looked like he belonged the minute he walked in here, and Carlos is like that too," says Yost. "It's not that they feel like they can do the job, they know they can do the job."
But Yost and the Brewers know it all starts with Hall, who for the first time in his career will begin the season with an every-day position locked up and the team's fortunes weighing heavily on his performance. Not one to become cocky after a breakout season--he did toil for nearly six full seasons in the minors, after all--Hall says he carries a "quiet confidence" now that he's established himself as the anchor to the lineup. "Hopefully, I'm [still] one of the humblest guys in this clubhouse," he says.
But in the lineup he is definitely one of the most feared. Last season Hall was one of four players in the majors to hit at least 35 home runs and 35 doubles. The other members of that group: All-Star outfielders Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Aramis Ramirez. "I like it when the game is on the line," says Hall, "and I'm coming up in a tough situation."
That's certainly the way the Brewers like it too.