The Brewers had a dark cloud hovering over them as they opened spring training. They still awaited the verdict on left fielder Ryan Braun, who is facing a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test.
Braun appealed that finding and was awaiting the arbitration panel's ruling.
Obviously, if the reigning National League MVP is missing for the first 50 games of the season, it damages the Brewers' chances of repeating as Central Division champions.
The Brewers already are missing the services of slugger Prince Fielder, who bolted for Detroit via free agency.
But the show must go on, with or without Braun, so the Brewers must prepare as best they can for the start of the season. If Braun indeed is suspended, left field will become a focal point in camp, with newcomer Norichika Aoki entering the picture.
Aoki was a three-time batting champion in Japan but the Brewers aren't sure how his skill set will translate to the major leagues. Thus, he will be given a long look in spring camp, with plenty of playing time once exhibition play begins.
Another big focus will be Mat Gamel getting his chance to be the everyday first baseman.
General manager Doug Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke have vowed to give Gamel every chance to replace Fielder after two big seasons in Triple-A. It will be up to Gamel to reward that confidence by showing he can handle the work.
The Brewers also are eager to watch the new, veteran left side of the infield in action. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez and shortstop Alex Gonzalez, both signed as free agents, are proven performers. Ramirez will be counted on for run production while Gonzalez's main task will be to provide reliable defense.
For the first time in many, many years, the rotation returns intact, with right-handers Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and left-handers Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson.
That security blanket will be counted on to give the Brewers a chance to win virtually every day, even when they don't score a lot of runs.
The Brewers also feel very good about the back end of their bullpen, with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford back to handle the eighth and ninth innings. The main goal will be to fill the middle of the bullpen, with left-handers Manny Parra and Zach Braddock back from health issues and ready to compete for jobs.
The Brewers also must rebuild their bench after the losses of veterans Craig Counsell, Mark Kotsay and Jerry Hairston Jr. Two reserve infield jobs are up for grabs, with Jeff Bianchi, Cesar Izturis and Brooks Conrad among the favorites.
Brewers Notes & Quotes
RHP Jose Veras lost his salary arbitration hearing with the Brewers. Veras will receive a $2 million salary in 2012 instead of the $2.375 million figure he filed. Veras was acquired in December from Pittsburgh in a trade for 3B Casey McGehee.
INF Jeff Bianchi will try to win a backup role during the Brewers' spring camp. Claimed on waivers from the Cubs during the off-season, Bianchi has an edge over other candidates because he is on the 40-man roster.
LF Ryan Braun still has not learned if he will get a positive drug test overturned and avoid a 50-game suspension at the start of the 2012 season. Braun appealed the result before a three-man arbitration panel, which has taken more than a month without rendering a verdict.
2B Rickie Weeks is expected to be full-go at the outset of spring training, even though it has taken him all winter to rehab an ankle injury he sustained last July. Weeks badly sprained his left ankle and missed six weeks before returning at the end of the season, obviously hobbled.
LHPs Manny Parra and Zach Braddock will try in spring training to give the Brewers something they didn't have for most of the second half of the 2011 season, a left-hander in the bullpen. Parra missed the season because of back and elbow issues, and Braddock missed most of the second half while battling a sleep disorder.
By the Numbers: 0 – Games lost by the Brewers in the second half of the 2011 season when they led after seven innings.
Quote to Note: "Whenever you lose a player like Prince (Fielder), you're not going to be able to replace what he did offensively. So, you better figure out how to create some runs to make up for his loss. Even if you have a power team, you still have to try to do things to put guys in scoring position more often." -- Manager Ron Roenicke, on how different his offense might be without Prince Fielder.