Braun's back, but Brewers enter 2016 in rebuilding mode
MILWAUKEE (AP) Reliever Will Smith tore a knee ligament while taking off his shoe. Star slugger Ryan Braun's surgically-repaired back is still sore.
From afar, those hard-luck story lines for the Milwaukee Brewers make it seem as if it could be a trying summer at Miller Park. Even Hank the Ballpark Pup was dogged by controversy this spring training over whether one of the team's beloved mascots had been sent to the farm.
The canine is just fine. The rest of the team is about to embark on a rebuilding season in Milwaukee.
''We're building a foundation,'' manager Craig Counsell said at the Brewers' spring training complex in Phoenix. ''I really feel like we're off to a good start in that place.''
It's the first full season of a long-anticipated renovation. The teardown started last summer, when former stars like Carlos Gomez and Aramis Ramirez were shipped out in deals that replenished the farm system.
Counsell is going into his first full year as skipper. General manager David Stearns took over in November. At 31, Stearns is emblematic of the youth movement at Miller Park.
Even Braun, 32, is older than Stearns.
''We're not breaking up a juggernaut team that has gone to the postseason each of the last five years or something,'' Braun said before spring training. ''I think we're building toward something that we'll be able to have sustained success and have some impact players.''
It could be a little while, though. Until then, the Brewers will likely be competing with the Cincinnati Reds to stay out of the cellar in the loaded NL Central.
Some other notes and story lines in Milwaukee ahead of the season opener on Monday against the San Francisco Giants:
The Brewers are on pace to win at least one key race to start the 2016 season. Barring any unexpected major deals, the franchise could have the lowest opening-day payroll in baseball, somewhere between $57 million and $60 million, depending on how many players end up on the disabled list. It would be the first time that the Brewers would have the league's lowest payroll since spending $27 million in 2004.
The outfielder's offseason routine was delayed by a couple weeks because of the back surgery. Back soreness kept Braun out of the lineup for a week recently. Braun is also making a transition on defense, where he's moving back to left field this spring following two seasons in right.
''I'm confident he'll be in the lineup on opening day,'' Counsell said. ''Health is the most important thing, but at-bats are still important.''
After two seasons marred by suspension or injury, Braun bounced back in 2015 to hit .285 with 25 homers and 84 RBIs in 140 games. He was 24 of 28 in stolen-base attempts.
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy's injury woes certainly contributed to a number of the 94 losses for the Brewers last season. A broken left toe and a concussion limited Lucroy to just 86 starts behind the plate. A career .282 hitter, Lucroy is also a poised game-caller who excels at framing pitches. His veteran presence should help a young pitching staff, unless Stearns also decides to unload Lucroy.
The bullpen, which could have been one of the strengths of the club, took a hit when Smith tore the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee while taking off a shoe last week. The hard-throwing left-hander had been set to be co-closer along with righty Jeremy Jeffress. Now the job belongs to Jeffress full-time until Milwaukee figures out Smith's future. Smith will focus on rest and rehabilitation, and Counsell said the team doctor was going to check Smith out again in late April.
ON THE FARM
Stearns arrived from the Houston Astros organization, where he played an integral role in helping to shape that club's rebuilding project. A similar challenge might await in Milwaukee, though, just like in Houston, there are bright spots on the horizon in the minors. The top prospect is shortstop Orlando Arcia, who will start the year at Triple-A Colorado Springs but could be at Miller Park by year's end.
AP Baseball Writer Ron Blum contributed to this story.
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