Brewers have full confidence in rotation

Most preseason predictions have the Milwaukee Brewers finishing second or third in the NL Central, perhaps penalizing the defending division champs a little too heavily for the loss of All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder.

After all, the Brewers have perhaps fewer weak spots in their lineup than last year and — most important — one of the major leagues’ best front-to-back pitching staffs returns largely intact. Rick Kranitz, in his second year as the team’s pitching coach, is seeing the benefits of working with the same group for another year.

“Me working with them, both sides are more comfortable, so it’s nice,” Kranitz said. “I’ve been with staffs where we had one guy set. So, it’s really nice having all five guys, and pretty much the meat and potatoes of our bullpen are back, too. To have the two guys we have at the end and then Kameron (Loe) being back as well, we’re getting Manny (Parra) back, and the addition of (Jose) Veras is also key for us, and (Marco) Estrada was here all last year. Really, it’s probably 80 percent of our staff is going to be back.”

Earlier this week, manager Ron Roenicke and Kranitz set the order for the rotation. Seventeen-game winner Yovani Gallardo will start the team’s April 6 opener against St. Louis. After that, 16-game winner Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson will follow. All five won at least 11 games last season, and all five — even Marcum, who has battled shoulder stiffness in spring training — are ready to go. Kranitz likes what he sees from Marcum, who struggled in last season’s playoffs and then couldn’t get to 100 percent after arriving at camp.

“He’s at 60 pitches,” Kranitz said. “He’ll be throwing that (Monday) at the minor league game, and we’ll make the decision after that on whether or not he’ll pitch the last game against Arizona (on Wednesday) or pitch another minor league game. But we’re close. He’s come along really well, and I’m really excited about that. He’s throwing the ball really well. I can tell from his bullpen sessions, everything is really good. It’s as good as I could ever have hoped for.”

So is the back end up the bullpen, where the team will have Francisco Rodriguez, acquired in July last year, in a setup role for the full season. Behind him is closer John Axford, who had 46 saves in 2011.

“I don’t think we lost a game past the seventh inning, once we got K-Rod, and that’s huge for us,” Kranitz said. “Plus, we can mix and match, too. There’ll be some days that Ax will not be available to pitch in the ninth — and K-Rod can be able to do that. So, it’s really comforting for us to know that once we get to that eighth inning that you don’t have to push your starters through that inning.”

Hart talk: As right fielder Corey Hart continues to play parts of minor league games, the Brewers are nearing a decision on whether to put him on the Opening Day roster or the disabled list to start the season. Hart is slowly building up his ability to play in a full game after undergoing minor knee surgery March 6.

The Brewers expect to give him Monday off and then put him in their final two major league spring training games Tuesday and Wednesday before making a decision.

“We’re not so much concerned that he’s going to have a setback and now we’re going to lose him … we’re not that concerned about that,” Roenicke said. “The tough call is: Do we feel that, swinging the bat, that he’s ready and could contribute right away?”

The Milwaukee Brewers provided interviews for this story.