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Spring Training: A Preview

In just a few short days, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, and everything starts back up again. Updates will start coming in from Arizona, and masses of fans will get incredibly excited over the sight of players jogging through drills in 90 degree heat, en route to what will surely be a 162-0 regular season record and World Series win. By all means, get excited about the players being back and baseball returning in earnest: It’s been a long winter, and this hope is what makes a lot of us follow the game in the first place.

However, the Brewers should have all that and more this spring, with a bunch of new faces, a division title to defend, and a giant black cloud that looks to be hanging over our heads for awhile. All in all, there shouldn’t be a shortage of storylines this spring, and I just wanted to do a quick rundown of what we have to look forward to over the next month or two:

(Note: I’m not going to cover any one potential topic in detail or discuss potential resolutions here because most of these will have their own post dedicated to them sometime this spring–consider this list a preview of sorts and not anything of great substance.)

1. What will happen to Ryan Braun?
There’s nothing I can say here that hasn’t already been said (in fact, Andy did an excellent piece on it today), but the verdict of the MLB panel could account for a 2-3 win swing on paper, and it’s beginning to look very possible that we won’t get a decision until workouts have started. In addition, a Braun suspension will suddenly push a few more issues to the forefront, including…

2. What can we expect from Norichika Aoki?
If Braun is suspended, Aoki, an outfielder signed out of Japan in the offseason, is likely to take the majority of his at-bats. This would leave Aoki, whose talent is said to be more in line with that of a good fourth outfielder, with the dual challenge of replacing one of the most valuable players in the game while he adjusts to a new style of play and a new culture. If this sounds like a lot of risk, uncertainty, and general cause for uneasiness, that’s because it is, but it’s also better than having Mark Kotsay play 50 games in left, I suppose.

3. Will any pitching prospects take the next step?
The Brewers’ pitching situation isn’t nearly as dire as years past–They have been blessed with five league-average or better starters penciled in to the rotation and a reasonably solid bullpen–but there could still be help on the way. Well-regarded arms Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg both graced the top of Brewer prospect lists and will be in camp, likely with an eye on a 2012 role. (Peralta is probably the Brewers’ best option to join the rotation in case of injury, and some think Thornburg could see time in the big-league bullpen towards the end of the season.) Between them and farther-off 2011 draftees Taylor Jungmann and Jed Bradley (in camp as well), we have reason to hope that the club’s next few seasons will look more like 2011 than 2009 or 2010.

4. Is Mat Gamel really in the best shape of his life?
This is a make-or-break season if there ever was one for Gamel, who will be replacing Prince Fielder at first base this year and hasn’t had much major-league success, be it his hitting (.222/.309/.374 in 194 plate appearances) or his reputation for less-than-perfect dedication . Gamel was one of the first of many ballplayers to state he was “in the best shape of his life” this offseason , but has some giant shoes (not to mention pants or jerseys) to fill this spring, and will probably remain a question mark until he proves otherwise.

5. Who will be this year’s designated grinder?
We’ve already discussed the losses of Fielder and (potentially) Braun, but there’s a question equally important to the team as we know it: What is Ron Roenicke going to do with the loss of Craig Counsell and the aforementioned Kotsay? Things just wouldn’t be the same if Ron Roenicke didn’t have a least one wily veteran sitting on his bench, doing “good clubhouse guy” stuff and playing just enough to really annoy the blogosphere, and there are a few nonroster invitees that could potentially fill this role. Personally, I like Cesar Izturis, whose good glove/horrific bat combo would it very easy to forget that Counsell is gone–that is, if the real Counsell wasn’t around in the front office, probably still waiting for Runnin’ Ron to suffer another Betancourt-induced migraine and have no choice but to put him in at shortstop.