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Crew brings high expectations to camp

Crew heads to Arizona with higher expectations

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MILWAUKEE -- More than four months have passed since the Brewers played their final inning last summer. With the ceremonial start of 2007 only days away, it's an opportunity to start over.

Brewers pitchers and catchers formally reported to Maryvale Baseball Park this weekend, though many of them -- and not just the pitchers and catchers -- have been using the team's sprawling Spring Training facility for weeks. Position players must report by Feb. 23, and manager Ned Yost will give his annual full-squad pep talk on a back field Feb. 24.

Here's a preview: No more excuses. We're here to win.

Yost has delivered varieties of that message in recent seasons, but his Brewers will be expected to deliver on it in 2007 more than ever before. The payroll, which bottomed out at about $27 million in 2004, is well past $60 million this season, and in the past six weeks, general manager Doug Melvin has handed out two of the three largest contracts in franchise history.

Topping that list is the four-year, $42 million commitment to free-agent right-hander Jeff Suppan, who will not be counted on as an ace, but rather as a steadying influence on what could be a top five National League starting rotation.

The starting five includes Ben Sheets, who is entering the third season of a four-year, $38.5 million deal that ranks second on the franchise's all-time list. The Brewers desperately need Sheets to shake the shoulder injuries that dogged him throughout 2006, and owner Mark Attanasio points out that with two years left on Sheets' contract, he still has time to make it a worthy investment.

The offseason's other big payday belonged to infielder-turned-outfielder Bill Hall, who not only avoided a potential Feb. 16 arbitration hearing, but avoided arbitration altogether. His four-year contract guarantees $24 million and "buys out" all three of his arbitration years, plus one season of free agency.

The team is expected to ask Hall, who mostly manned shortstop last season and has been an infielder his whole life, to play center field. He appeared seven times as an outfielder in 2006, but will need all of Spring Training to acclimate himself to playing there every day.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Hall, who led the '06 Brewers with 35 home runs and 85 RBIs. "I want to be one of the best center fielders in the game."

Suppan will not be the only Brewers newcomer meeting new teammates in Spring Training. The team traded reliable left-hander Doug Davis and up-and-coming lefty Dana Eveland to the Diamondbacks just after Thanksgiving for catcher Johnny Estrada, who provides an offensive upgrade behind the plate, right-hander Claudio Vargas, who will slide into the rotation, and right-hander Greg Aquino, who will compete for a bullpen spot.

New names on the coaching staff include hitting coach Jim Skaalen and first-base coach Ed Sedar, longtime members of the Brewers' Minor League coaching ranks. New third-base coach Nick Leyva brings managerial experience and takes over for Dale Sveum, who shifted to bench coach and will serve as Yost's right-hand man.

A new but familiar face is infielder Craig Counsell, a Wisconsin-raised guy who played for Milwaukee in 2004. He'll back up shortstop J.J. Hardy, one of a handful of Brewers returning from injury, and Counsell could also see action alongside Tony Graffanino at third base should Corey Koskie be unable to shake the lingering effects of post-concussion syndrome.

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Other newcomers include pitcher Grant Balfour and catcher JD Closser, former prospects whom the Brewers plucked off waivers. Reliever Marino Salas was also a waiver claim, but he is considered more of a long-term project.

The list of non-roster invitees is highlighted by infielder Yohannis Perez, a potential dark horse -- depending on Koskie's condition -- who is coming off a long layoff after defecting from Cuba two years ago.

The NRI list also includes arguably the Brewers' top two prospects. Right-hander Yovani Gallardo led all of the Minor Leagues in strikeouts last season and reportedly pitches older than his 20 years (he'll turn 21 on Feb. 27). And third baseman Ryan Braun will get a chance to compete for Koskie's spot after slugging his way through the Minors.

Neither Gallardo nor Braun has played an inning above the Double-A level, so their arrival in Milwaukee could be postponed to midseason.

The Cardinals won the NL Central (and eventually the World Series) last year with 83 wins, and every club in the division is heading to Spring Training with question marks. The Brewers need a lot of things to go right -- they haven't had a winning season since 1992 and haven't been to the playoffs since 1982 -- but they will be expected to compete.

"I'll tell you, a few years ago when I was in Atlanta, [Milwaukee] was a team that you should beat," Estrada said. "Don't take them lightly, but you should beat them. Now I'm not so sure. They're a young, dangerous team. They're not just a pushover team."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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