"After seven years in the league," says Carlos Gomez, "I finally know who I am."
For seven years, as he shuttled from one organization to another -- from the Twins to the Mets to the Brewers -- Gomez was lost. Coaches always were telling him to use his blazing speed -- "to hit the ball on the ground, and make things happen with my legs," he says, even though anyone who's seen Gomez unleash his power during batting practice sessions has seen the great raw power that the 27-year-old outfielder possesses.
"When I was in the minors, I always looked ay myself as a power hitter," says Gomez. "I always thought I could hit 40, 50 home runs in the big leagues. But when you're a young player and a coach is telling you to keep the ball on the ground, you listen."
While he was briefly sidelined with a clavicle injury in late July, Gomez met with manager Ron Roenicke. "I told him, When I come back, I'm going to swing, and I'm going to hit home runs," says Gomez, who'd never hit more than eight home runs in a single season. OK, the skipper said, let it fly and let's see what happens.
After returning from the injury on July 23, Gomez hit 14 home runs over the rest of the season and helped carry the Brewers during their scorching second half. "The truth is, I've never thought of myself as a speed guy," he says. "This guy hitting home runs, this was the guy I always thought I was."
Gomez has always been an elite defender in the outfield with his great speed, and after flashing his power last year, he enters 2013 as one of the team's most intriguing -- and most important -- players. Gomez's breakout season, as well as the surprising years from Jonathan Lucroy and Norichika Aoki, was a big reason why the Brewers led the league in runs in 2012. Gomez was one of five players with 15 home runs and 30 stolen bases (Braun, Mike Trout, B.J. Upton and Jimmy Rollins were the others).
The Brewers will need another big offensive season from Gomez to keep up with the Reds in the Cardinals in the NL Central, especially with Corey Hart out until May. There's reason to believe that Gomez's power surge will continue -- his home run/fly ball ratio and slugging percentage have increased each of the last four seasons. And Gomez certainly believes he's capable of much more.
"I'm not trying to force the home runs," he says. "I'm going to use my ability for whatever situation comes up. If the infield is back, I'll bunt. But now, if I get a pitch that I can drive out of the ballpark, I'm going to drive it out of the ballpark.
"Last year, that was just a test for me," he says. "This year people will see the real thing."
With the rotation behind Yovani Gallardo a problem -- starters Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Chris Narveson, have all struggled this spring -- the Brewers addressed their biggest team weakness when they signed Lohse to a three-year, $33 million deal just days before the season opener. Though there should be questions about how he'll perform away from St. Louis, Lohse clearly upgrades the Brewers rotation and puts Milwaukee in the mix to challenge for a playoff spot.
The Brewers' quiet offseason included no significant departures (unless you count Shaun Marcum, Francisco Rodriguez and Kameron Loe). But to start the year the Brew Crew will be without Hart, their first baseman and the team's best hitter not named Ryan Braun. Hart won't be back until May after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Alex Gonzalez will take Hart's place.
Pop quiz: Which team led the National League in home runs in 2012? That's right, it was the Crew -- sans Prince Fielder -- and all the key players in the lineup (other than Hart to start the year) are back. The Brewers are particularly formidable at home, where they slugged .472 (vs. .402 on the road).
The bullpen, which blew a major league high 29 saves last year, must be a lot better, and it all starts with John Axford, who blew seven of his first 23 games, but returns as closer after his rocky season.
The Brewers finished last year 29-13 and made a run at the second wild card spot, and they could be one of 2013's surprise teams if Gallardo and Lohse have their typical years and one of the young starters enjoys a big breakout season. A better bullpen is key. If Axford can turn things around, the Brewers could be a dangerous sleeper team in the National League.