Counsell eager to put in work ahead for Crew

Counsell eager to put in work ahead for Crew

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers manager Craig Counsell advanced the idea in the final weeks of the team's first full rebuilding season that the roster on the final day of the 2016 season would closely resemble the roster on '17 Opening Day. Fans who have watched Ryan Braun for the last nine years will be paying close attention over the winter to see whether Counsell proves correct.

Braun's uncertain future was the Brewers' top storyline as the regular season slipped into the offseason on Sunday evening at Coors Field. They nearly traded him to the Dodgers in August for a package of players headlined by Yasiel Puig, only to run out of time. Those talks could resume over the winter as the Brewers continue to stockpile prospects.

"The fact that it came that close to happening makes it feel that much more real," Braun said. "For all of us, we understand the business side of what we do. Anybody can be moved at any time. Obviously, that's the closest I've ever come to being traded, and it was an eye-opening experience.

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"It made the last couple of months for me a little bit more enjoyable, just to make sure I did take the time to reflect on everything, and really enjoy the couple of months here in case they are my last."

Braun is the last remaining regular from the 2011 Brewers team that won 96 regular-season games and the National League Central title. A new crop of players is bidding to create a new core.

"We've got lots of progress to make," Counsell said. "We can sit here and say there have been some good things happening, and that's true, but we also have a long way to go. We can't take our eye off that, and what it takes to build something sustainable is difficult."

Here is a look at what lies ahead:

Arbitration-eligible: Chase Anderson, Chris Carter, Scooter Gennett, Martin Maldonado, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg, Carlos Torres

Free agents: Blaine Boyer and Chris Capuano

Rotation: The good news for the Brewers was that they learned about Junior Guerra and Zach Davies, who began the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs and ended it as Milwaukee's best starting pitchers. Guerra is a trade candidate, but if he's back, the Brewers would love repeat performances from both. The rest of the rotation will be made up of some combination of Matt Garza (in the final season of his four-year contract), Peralta, Jimmy Nelson and Anderson. Taylor Jungmann will have to pitch his way back in after a poor 2016. Brent Suter looks like a depth option, and top pitching prospect Josh Hader should be ready to break into the big leagues at some point in 2017.

Guerra's masterful start

Bullpen: Brewers relievers did a good job of covering the late innings after the club traded closer Jeremy Jeffress and setup man Will Smith on Aug. 1. Thornburg will be back as the closer, assuming he isn't traded -- clubs showed interest before the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- and Corey Knebel looks like the primary setup man. Fellow fireballer Jacob Barnes is among the younger players primed for a more high-leverage role, and Michael Blazek is another option for those spots if he can stay healthy.

Catcher: Maldonado has been a very capable backup for years. The question is whether the Brewers will make him an everyday starter in hopes that regular at-bats lead to more offensive production. If they opt for a different solution, Manny Pina is coming off a nice season, and the newly acquired Andrew Susac is another option. The Brewers' most promising Minor League catcher, Jacob Nottingham, No. 14 on MLBPipeline.com's list of Milwaukee's top prospects, might have to go back to Double-A Biloxi to begin next season.

Pina's perfect throw nabs Gomez

First base: On each of the five Opening Days since Prince Fielder departed via free agency, the Brewers have had a different first baseman. That streak could end in 2017, if the club opts to bring back arbitration-eligible slugger Carter. General manager David Stearns' first Major League free-agent acquisition was exactly as advertised in his first season, with Carter setting Milwaukee's franchise record for strikeouts while ranking among the NL leaders in home runs. That kind of pop plays at Miller Park.

Second base: Another position at which the Brewers have options. The incumbent is Gennett, who set his career high for home runs in 2016 but "has had better seasons" overall, Counsell said, and is limited defensively to second base. With Orlando Arcia now entrenched at shortstop, the Brewers need to find a permanent spot for Jonathan Villar, and there is thought that Villar's greatest value could come at second.

Villar energizes the Brewers

Shortstop: The Brewers hope Arcia's name appears here for years to come. They called him up shortly after the Trade Deadline to give him two months of Major League experience, hoping it helps when he starts there beginning on Opening Day 2017. Arcia didn't do much with the bat during his late-season audition, but he impressed Counsell, a former shortstop, with a knack for making challenging plays look easy in the field.

Third base: Villar moved to third after Arcia's arrival, and he could be back there. Hernan Perez, a player with great instincts who manned seven positions in 2016, including third base, is another option. Or, like he did last winter when he acquired Aaron Hill from Arizona, Stearns could find a solution for third base on the open market.

Outfield: The Braun question figures to dominate the Brewers' offseason and will determine what this group looks like on Opening Day. The leading contenders for the other two spots are speedy center fielder Keon Broxton, who broke through in his fourth stint in the Majors in 2016 after dropping his hands at the plate, and Domingo Santana, who missed much of the season with elbow and shoulder injuries but was strong in September. Other candidates include Nieuwenhuis, Michael Reed and Perez, who was adequate at all three positions during his season-long tour of the diamond. In the Minor Leagues, the Brewers are deep in the outfield department, starting with top prospect Lewis Brinson, a versatile defender acquired from the Rangers in the Lucroy-Jeffress trade who finished the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs. The Brewers will have to add him to their 40-man roster in November.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.