High expectations in Brewers camp

Brewers begin spring with higher expectations

PHOENIX -- Ben Sheets and the Brewers are ready to roll.

"I'm ready to get back on the field and play," said Sheets, whose 2006 season was marred by injuries. "There is going to be a lot of work involved, but sometimes work is fun. This is going to be fun."

More than four months have passed since Milwaukee played its final inning last October. When pitchers and catchers reported to Maryvale Baseball Park on Saturday for the ceremonial start of 2007, it marked an opportunity to start over.

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 the next day.

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 that more than ever before in 2007. 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 5 starting rotation in the National League.

The starting five is headlined by Sheets, who is entering the third season of a four-year, $38.5 million deal, which ranks second on the franchise's all-time list. The Brewers desperately need Sheets to shake the shoulder injuries that dogged him throughout '06, 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 will 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."

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Suppan will not be the only newcomer meeting his new teammates at Maryvale Baseball Park for the first time. 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.

The 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 native 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.

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. Melvin said Perez will probably need time in the Minors to rediscover his game.

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 he 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 season with 83 wins, and every club in the division reported 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.