Ryan Braun’s locker was still empty Wednesday afternoon.
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A green parking pass sat on the chair. A pristine No. 8 jersey waited for its owner. A question mark would have been the most appropriate caption.
The first workout for Milwaukee Brewers position players is scheduled for Saturday. Between now and then, Braun will report to camp and (most likely) learn whether he must serve a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test.
Last year, the Brewers were freewheeling champions of the National League Central. Now they’re preparing for Camp Uncertainty — and Braun’s appeal is only part of the story.
Whenever Braun walks through the clubhouse door, Prince Fielder won’t be behind him. That means the Brewers have a new identity, suspension or no suspension.
The Braun of 2012 won’t be the Braun of 2011, because Fielder is no longer here to protect him. A repeat of Braun’s MVP performance looked unlikely even before ESPN reported that he tested positive for a banned substance. Consequently, it would be a shock if the Brewers equaled last season’s 96 wins.
The Brewers are lucky to be in a division that lacks a clear front-runner. They will need time to adapt to life without Fielder. Manager Ron Roenicke must find a new way to score — and win.
“Most likely,” affirmed outfielder Nyjer Morgan, who must improve his walk and stolen base totals. “We lost quite a bit of power in the middle.”
“Well, we haven’t lost it yet,” Morgan continued, nodding toward Braun’s unclaimed jersey. “But we’ll find out.”
Once they do, Braun’s clubhouse demeanor will be a tone-setter for the team. Will his standing as a leader be diminished by the taint of PEDs (which will linger even if he’s exonerated)? Or will he continue — and augment — his profile as the face of the franchise, now that Fielder is gone?
“Can’t speculate,” Morgan said. “I’m still in his corner. I’ve got his back regardless. I’m not just a teammate. I’m also a friend. I support the guy. I hope the (decision) comes out so people can stop talking about it and we can turn the page.
“I can’t speak for everybody else, but he’s still a good friend. He’s still a hard worker. I saw everything he did last year. He was hard-working in the gym. It’s one of those things that’s unfortunate. I’ll always support the guy.
“He’s still a heckuva ballplayer. You still gotta hit that ball. I’ll leave it at that.”
Morgan said he’s been in contact with Braun. So has All-Star second baseman Rickie Weeks, who arrived at camp Wednesday. Regardless of the arbitrator’s decision, veterans like Morgan, 31, and Weeks, 29, must help the team through what could be an awkward spring.
There’s no telling when — or if — last year’s carefree, Delta-house vibe will return.
“I think we set the tone in this clubhouse a long time ago, before this even happened,” Weeks said. “Things happen. Guys get hurt. People go down. You have to man up and go out there like it’s your last game and play hard. That’s what we do here.
“It’s up to everybody here, not just me. Of course, I’m going to say some things. Corey Hart is going to say some things. Guys who have been here for a while are going to say things. It’s a part of the team’s attitude. We have been like this for a long time here. There’s no excuses in this clubhouse.”
While there will be intense scrutiny on Braun, Aramis Ramirez (Fielder’s replacement in the lineup) and Mat Gamel (Fielder’s replacement at first base), Weeks might be the Brewers’ most indispensable player.
Weeks missed 39 games during the second half with a severely sprained left ankle and played hurt during the playoffs. At his best, he’s a speed-and-power threat who can be the engine for an offense in transition.
“I didn’t run, period, the past couple seasons,” said Weeks, who stole fewer bases over the last three years (22) than in 2007 alone (25). “I think I’ll pick that up this year. It’s one of those things where I didn’t need to run too much because we were hitting homers all over the place. I think we’re going to have to score runs differently now.”
One important factor in the Brewers’ favor: The team’s 3.78 ERA was the best in the division last year. Roenicke used only six starting pitchers last year, a reflection of good health, good performance and good fortune. And every member of the group — Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson, Marco Estrada — is back.
“Of all the years I’ve been here, last year was the first time we had actually a good starting five — and you can throw Marco Estrada in there to make it a top six,” Weeks said. “To have those guys come back, and the back of the bullpen come back, you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Well, they could ask for a distraction-free season. But they aren’t going to get it.