Brewers quick hits

Brewers quick hits

PHOENIX -- On paper, their starting rotation and bullpen are improved and the offense is a nice mix of veterans and youngsters with ceilings higher than the dome above Miller Park.

But that's on paper. Will the Milwaukee Brewers be able to produce on the field? Will the Brewers be able to keep their players healthy and on the field? Those questions will get answered beginning April 2, when the team plays the Dodgers in the season opener.

Team strength: Pitching. When veteran Jeff Suppan signed as a free agent on Christmas Eve, the Brewers rotation was set: Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano, Suppan, Claudio Vargas and Dave Bush. That means the team will be able to send young prospects Carlos Villanueva, Zach Jackson and Yovani Gallardo to Triple-A (though Villanueva also could win a bullpen spot) as a first line of injury insurance. The group may not be the flashiest in the game, but it is solid if healthy.

The bullpen also could be strong and is stocked with power arms. If Derrick Turnbow can return to form, he and closer Francisco Cordero could be one of the league's better late-inning combos.

Achilles heel: Injuries crushed the team's chances last season, and there are no guarantees that it will not happen again. Particularly concerning is second baseman Rickie Weeks, who needed left thumb surgery following the 2005 season and right wrist surgery following 2006. His quick hands are the key to his game, and he needs to stay healthy to produce. Weeks projects as a run producer but will be used at the top of the batting order again in 2007.

Top newcomer: Suppan's career record hovers around .500, and he has never been an All-Star, but the Brewers gave him the richest contract in franchise history and will look to him for stability in the middle of the rotation. Suppan has made at least 30 starts in eight straight seasons, and he topped 200 innings in the five years before his three-year run in St. Louis, a team that typically goes early to the bullpen.

Ready to make the leap: Although third-base prospect Ryan Braun might not start the year in Milwaukee, he will likely end it there. Braun has a fabulous mix of power, speed and smarts. If he can improve his defense, he will be the total package. Brewers fans are salivating at the prospect of a 24-and-under infield of Prince Fielder, Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Braun.

On the hot seat: Fans might be expecting too much from Suppan because of the huge contract, but it's hard to argue that anyone's seat will be hotter than that of outfielder Geoff Jenkins. The longest-tenured Brewers player was benched last August before injuries forced him back into the lineup, and manager Ned Yost is now considering a Jenkins-Kevin Mench platoon in left field. Both players have said they want to play every day. If Jenkins does not have a big year, his days in Milwaukee may be numbered.

spring training 2007
Spotlight on the Brewers
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
More team spotlights:

You can bank on: Defense will be a hot topic all year. Shortstop Hardy and left fielder Jenkins are the only defensive standouts, and first baseman Fielder is surprisingly good. But there are issues elsewhere; Bill Hall will need time to adjust to center field, and Corey Hart remains a work in progress in right. Weeks showed dramatic improvement last season, but at times he still looks stiff. Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell will be OK at third base, but their natural positions are second base and shortstop, respectively.

Litmus test: It's becoming cliché, but if Sheets makes his 30 starts, the team has a real chance to contend in a balanced National League Central. After three straight years of 34 starts and 200-plus innings, Sheets has battled injuries the last two years and needs a big season to justify his big contract.

Games you don't want to miss
April 9-17 at Florida, St. Louis and Cincinnati: The first road trip. The Brewers were a putrid 27-54 on the road last season compared to 48-33 at Miller Park. The 5.21 road ERA certainly contributed, but for the most part, Yost was mystified by his team's road woes. That will have to improve for the team to contend.

June 18-20, July 20-22 vs. San Francisco: Giants slugger Barry Bonds is making a bid to break Hank Aaron's all-time record for home runs, many of which came at old Milwaukee County Stadium. Bet on Bonds getting a tough reception.

Aug. 14-16 vs. St. Louis: The Brewers are staging a season-long celebration of the 1982 Brewers, who 25 years ago took the Cardinals to a decisive Game 7 in the World Series. A number of special events are scheduled for this series, including a team reunion.

April 6-8, June 4-6 vs. Cubs: It's always a circus at Miller Park when the Cubs are in town. The rivalry could be particularly interesting this season because both teams believe they are dramatically improved.

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