Cactus League countdown: Brewers

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Milwaukee Brewers defended their National League Central crown in 2012 and returned to the playoffs, perhaps even reaching the NLCS for a second straight season.

With Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart leading the way, the Brewers had the NL’s most potent offense. Braun led the NL in home runs, and the Brewers were tops in runs and home runs and second in OPS.

But the team’s bullpen — worst in baseball — did plenty to offset that offensive performance with a league-worst 29 blown saves. Fixing this deficiency is job No. 1 in 2013 if Milwaukee hopes to stay among the chief contenders in the competitive NL Central.

Gone is fiery setup man turned closer turned setup man again Francisco Rodriguez. After proving effective when he joined the team via trade with the Mets in 2011, Rodriguez just didn’t have it in 2012. Also gone are workhorse Kameron Loe, lifelong Brewer Manny Parra and hard-throwing Jose Veras, among others.

General manger Doug Melvin attempted to work his usual magic in the offseason, addressing the team’s concerns while not handing out any huge contracts. On a tight budget, Melvin managed to bring in a solid group to rebuild the bullpen, including veteran lefties Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny and right-hander Burke Badenhop.
 
Chief among the holders from 2012 is closer John Axford, who struggled last season but still managed to notch 35 saves. Axford lost his job in mid-July, but the Brewers failed to find a suitable replacement and returned to Axford, who converted 17 of his last 18 save chances.

A revamped bullpen isn’t exactly the sexy, ticket-selling change that fans get excited about when spring training rolls around, but it could very well have Ron Roenicke’s Brewers battling the Reds and Cardinals for position atop the NL Central.

Look at it this way: Had the Brewers managed to win even 14 of the 29 games lost to bullpen blunders, they would have matched Cincinnati’s division-winning 97-65 record.

Also high up on the to-do list when the Brewers arrive in Maryvale this spring is filling a couple holes in the starting rotation following the departures of Zack Greinke via trade last year and Shaun Marcum via free agency. Payroll limitations stopped the Brewers from reeling in a veteran starter — marquee or otherwise — in free agency, so they’ll turn to a group of young, in-house options, led by Wily Peralta.
 
The major gap in the lineup is at first base, due to Hart’s recent knee surgery that will have him sidelined at least through May, but the offensive core remains strong, with Braun, Ramirez, outfielder Norichika Aoki, second baseman Rickie Weeks and catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

Who’s new: P Mike Gonzalez, P Tom Gorzelanny, free agents; P Burke Badenhop, trade (Rays); P Jairo Asencio, IF Bobby Crosby, P Kelvim Escobar, IF Donnie Murphy, minor-league free agents.

Who’s gone: 1B Travis Ishikawa (Orioles); P Shaun Marcum (Mets); SS Edwin Maysonet (Cubs); P Mike McClendon (Rockies); OF Nyjer Morgan (Japan); P Juan Perez (Blue Jays); P Jose Veras (Astros); P Vinnie Chulk, P Tim Dillard, P Livan Hernandez, P Kameron Loe, P Manny Parra, P Francisco Rodriguez, free agents.

Battle ground: With Corey Hart expected to be out at least through May following knee surgery, there will be competition to fill his spot at first base. Mat Gamel, who began the year there in 2012 as Prince Fielder’s replacement, is the likely sub, but corner infielder Taylor Green could make a push for the job in camp. … As many as three spots in the starting rotation will be up for grabs. Suitors to fill those spots include Peralta, Chris Narveson, Mark Rogers and Tyler Thornburg. … The competition for spots in the bullpen is nearly wide open. Only a few spots are guaranteed heading into the season.
 
Health watch: Gamel missed all but 21 games last season due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament but is expected ready to go this spring filling in at first base for injured Hart. … Starting pitcher Narveson made two starts last season before needing rotator cuff surgery and reportedly received a clean bill of health recently from the team’s doctor. Still, manager Ron Roenicke said there’s a chance Narveson will be limited early in camp.

Sneak preview: Pitching prospect Jed Bradley, a first-round pick two years ago, looks to make a leap this year after a rough 2012. The lefty battled arm fatigue late in the year and had a 5.53 ERA with Single-A Brevard County. Still, he figures to be in the rotation mix within the next couple seasons. … Undersized infielder Scooter Gennett might not be long for the minors if he keeps producing at every level. He’ll be in big league camp again this year after a productive season in Double-A last season.
 
Spring training info: Maryvale Baseball Park, 3600 N. 51st Ave., Phoenix. First workouts Feb. 13 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 16 (full squad). First game Feb 23. Tickets: brewers.com.