MILWAUKEE (AP) Ryan Braun skipped the Milwaukee Brewers' fan festival last January, remaining mostly quiet while he waited for a decision in his appeal of a 50-game suspension under baseball's drug policy.
What a difference a year makes.
The 2011 NL MVP was on hand Sunday as the Brewers held their annual winter party just weeks before the team is scheduled to report to spring training. And the focus was on Milwaukee's inexperienced rotation and carrying over last season's strong finish, not on his rocky stretch from a year ago.
``There's always so much optimism this time of year but I think there are more unknowns than this time last year because of the lack of experience with our starting pitchers,'' Braun said. ``Last year, (Zack) Greinke and (Shaun) Marcum were guys with longer track records but this group is very talented. There's a lot of uncertainty but certainly a lot of talent.''
Well off the pace in the NL Central, the Brewers traded Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels last July. Marcum was bothered by right elbow tightness for much of the season, then signed with the New York Mets over the winter.
Now Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers are part of a youthful group poised to take on a bigger role, and Chris Narveson likely will be back in the rotation if he's fully recovered from shoulder surgery that ended his 2012 season after just two starts.
``It's no different than when we went with our young positional players: Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Ricky Weeks, Prince Fielder,'' general manager Doug Melvin said. ``The reason we got Greinke and (Randy) Wolf a couple years ago was to bide time to give our younger guys the ability to develop in the big leagues. Now it's their time to do it on the big league level.
``Marco Estrada, there's only two guys with a better walks to strikeouts ratio in the major leagues. Michael Fiers had a better strikeouts per nine innings than a whole list of quality pitchers. I'm banking on some of their performance of last year in August and September.''
A year ago, the Brewers were coming off one of their most successful seasons since the franchise moved to Milwaukee. Braun and Fielder combined to lead the Brewers to the 2011 NL Central title and an appearance in the league championship series.
But Fielder signed a big free-agent deal with Detroit last January and Braun was hounded by the suspension for much of last winter. He tested positive for elevated testosterone levels but arbitrator Shyam Das ruled in favor of the slugger due to chain of custody issues involving the sample, throwing out the penalty during spring training.
Braun responded with another monster season, hitting .319 with 112 RBIs and leading the NL in home runs (41), total bases (356) and OPS (.987). He finished second in NL MVP voting behind Giants star Buster Posey.
The left fielder anchors a lineup that returns almost completely intact after leading the National League in home runs, RBIs, runs, stolen bases and extra-base hits - quite the impressive feat for the first season since Fielder left. First baseman Corey Hart will miss the start of the season due to a right knee injury, but is expected to play this year.
``When Ryan is healthy, Ryan can have a better year than he had last year and a better year than he had the year before,'' manager Ron Roenicke said. ``He's capable of doing that. We need to keep him on the field and keep him healthy.''
Braun is one of 14 members of the Brewers' organization slated for the World Baseball Classic. Pool play for the international competition begins in early March.
``It's a tremendous honor to represent your country,'' said Braun, who was born in Mission Hills, Calif., and played college ball at the University of Miami. ``You don't know how many opportunities you'll get to do that - this tournament only happens once every four years, and four years from now who knows - for all of us - what our health situation will be, where we'll be in the game, whether we'll even get an opportunity to be invited.
``For me, I think it was a no-brainer. As long as I was healthy, it was something I was definitely going to do.''
While the majority of Milwaukee's position players are back, the pitching staff is full of question marks. The Brewers completely rebuilt their bullpen, save for closer John Axford and setup man Jim Henderson. Veterans Mike Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny and Burke Badenhop will fill some of the innings, with a crop of prospects expected to fill the rest along with rounding out the rotation.
A couple of the young players got valuable experience last season after Milwaukee slumped to a 54-66 record on Aug. 19. The Brewers went 27-13 to finish the year.
Braun thinks that experience will help in 2013.
``You've already seen them succeed at the highest level,'' he said. ``It's one thing to be a prospect and have success in the minor leagues but to see Rogers and Peralta come up, Fiers, what he did all year ... to see all those guys come up and succeed at this level, it gives us as a team confidence that they can produce, succeed and thrive at this level.''