MILWAUKEE (AP) - Prince Fielder is gone. Hope for the Milwaukee Brewers to win the NL Central and make another playoff run remains very much in place.
Yes, the Brewers will miss Fielder and the way his presence in the middle of the lineup made opposing pitchers sweat. But the team expected him to leave as a free agent all along, so it wasn't a shock when he signed a $214 million, nine-year contract with the Detroit Tigers.
That's too rich, even for a small-market team with big-time ambition. And while there's no way for the Brewers to directly replace Fielder's production, there are reasons to think they can keep winning without him. Boosted by Ryan Braun's overturned suspension, a deep starting rotation and a lockdown back end of the bullpen, the post-Prince Brewers can contend.
"With the staff that we have and the lineup that we have, I think we're going to be really good," starter Chris Narveson said. "I think there is a lot of uncertainty revolving around the team where people may underestimate us a little bit. I think we're going to come out, we have high expectations. I think we could surprise a lot of people."
Coming off a wild ride to an NLCS appearance, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke isn't looking past what he expects to be a tough division race.
"How far we get in the playoffs, those things, I don't worry about till later," Roenicke said. "We need to get there."
It starts with the reigning champion St. Louis Cardinals, even with Mike Matheny taking over for Tony La Russa as manager and Albert Pujols leaving for the Los Angeles Angels via free agency. But Roenicke doesn't think that's the only rival the Brewers have to worry about, and isn't inclined to count any team out.
"We're going to have our hands full trying to win our division," Roenicke said. "That is what our focus is going to be on."
To do that, Braun will have to regain his NL MVP form after a tumultuous offseason.
ESPN reported in December that Braun tested positive for elevated testosterone, and Braun appealed the ruling. His legal team argued during a grievance hearing that specified procedures for handling the sample were not followed, and arbitrator Shyam Das overturned the 50-game suspension Braun faced.
Now Braun is back for a full season, but he has struggled in spring training. He's also likely to get grief from opposing fans on the road this year - and he won't have Fielder hitting behind him.
In the market for a new cleanup hitter, the Brewers signed their former nemesis, Chicago Cubs slugger Aramis Ramirez. They don't expect him to make up for all of Fielder's absence, but they do expect him to get some big hits.
Mat Gamel, who has underwhelmed in his limited chances in the majors, will get the first shot at replacing Fielder at first base. Roenicke also wanted to give Corey Hart a chance to practice at first base during spring training, but Hart is recovering from a knee injury and it's not clear if he'll be ready to play on opening day.
With Ramirez at third, Gamel at first and offseason addition Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, second baseman Rickie Weeks is the only returning starter in the Brewers' infield. Gonzalez should be a defensive upgrade; Ramirez may not be, and there's not a large enough sample size to judge Gamel's defensive abilities.
The Brewers' true strength should be pitching, with a pair of potential No. 1 starters - Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo - leading what should be a deep rotation.
Greinke said the starters have to prove they can produce in the playoffs.
"Our pitching's - myself included - got to get the job done in the playoffs next time," Greinke said. "We did well just about the whole season. I don't know if it was getting tired or just running into some hot teams, but we've just got to get the job done better. That's how you get to the World Series, the pitching's got to do better in the playoff games."
While the strength of the Brewers' middle relief is something of a question mark, but the eighth and ninth innings are not. Somewhat surprisingly, Francisco Rodriguez accepted arbitration instead of seeking a free agent deal as a closer, and agreed to a one-year deal to become the setup man to John Axford, one of the best young closers in the game.
The roles are clearly defined for now, but Rodriguez's presence will push Axford.
"I definitely don't take anything for granted," Axford said. "I wanted to prove to the coaching (staff) that that they had someone reliable down there. I didn't want to come into spring thinking this was just mine and I'll breeze through it. I don't want to breeze through anything."
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy said with most of last year's pitching staff coming back, the Brewers should be able to get off to a quick start.
"Knowing all the starters primarily and relievers for that matter is very comforting to us and to them," Lucroy said. "Knowing that we know each other, we can hit it right out of the box. We're all on the same page."
Copyright 2013 The Associated
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