Brewers OFs hoping to top 2012 performances

This is the fifth part in a five-part series previewing the Milwaukee Brewers by position heading into spring training, which starts Tuesday with pitchers and catchers reporting.

Friday: Starting pitchers
Saturday: Relief pitchers
Sunday: Catchers
Monday: Infielders
Today: Outfielders

ON THE ROSTER (alphabetical order): Norichika Aoki (.288, 10 HR, 50 RBI, 30 SB), Ryan Braun (.319, 41 HR, 112 RBI, 30 SB), Khristopher Davis (.350, 15 HR, 52 RBI, 4 SB in minor leagues), Caleb Gindl (.261, 12 HR, 50 RBI, 4 SB in Triple-A), Carlos Gomez (.260, 19 HR, 51 RBI, 37 SB), Josh Prince (.251, 7 HR, 55 RBI, 41 SB in Double-A), Logan Schafer (.304, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 0 SB)

OFFSEASON CHANGES: The biggest change in the outfield doesn’t come from addition, but from subtraction. Nyjer Morgan was not tendered a contract by the team and took his alter ego to play in Japan. Morgan was expendable partially because of the down season he had and because the Brewers are confident in the outfielders they have on the roster. Morgan saw his playing time evaporate as the 2012 season went on, as Norichika Aoki emerged and Carlos Gomez broke out.

STARTER SPOTLIGHT: The Brewers return all three starters in the outfield and if healthy, Ryan Braun will be in left, Gomez in center and Aoki in right on Opening Day.

There was no surprise in what Braun did last season, but Gomez and Aoki both exceeded expectations. Brought over from Japan, Aoki became a valuable part of Milwaukee’s lineup and eventually found himself as the Brewers’ everyday right fielder and leadoff hitter when Corey Hart shifted to first base. A spark atop the lineup, Aoki will hit leadoff or second to start 2013.

Long billed as a player that’s never reached his potential, Gomez showed flashes of his tremendous five-tool ability last season. A free agent at the end of the season, Gomez could be primed for a big season. Nobody is platooning with him to start the season, but if Gomez falters, Logan Schafer could play his way into the lineup.

With Morgan gone, the door is finally open for Schafer to make the Opening Day roster as the team’s fourth outfielder. The 26-year-old showed well in September of last season and in previous spring trainings, but injuries and depth in front of him have held Schafer back. With both issues in the rearview mirror for the time being, Schafer is the unquestioned favorite to be Milwaukee’s fourth outfielder. He’s a smooth defender that will provide minimal drop off in center when filling in for Gomez.

Things get dicey after that and there’s not a real contender if the Brewers decide to keep five outfielders. The original plan was to give Mat Gamel a look at the corner outfield spots in spring training, but that changed a bit when Hart went down. Gamel will still get some time in the outfield, but will spend most of his time at first base. Caleb Gindl could impress enough in camp to make the roster, especially since he’ll see more time early with Braun and Gomez away for the World Baseball Classic. Khristopher Davis and Josh Prince are on the 40-man roster but aren’t ready to contribute at the big league level, especially as a fifth outfielder. The Brewers could choose to go with four outfielders and Gamel as an emergency fifth option.

SPRING TRAINING QUESTION: What will Aoki do for an encore? One of general manager Doug Melvin’s best moves with the Brewers was probably his least heralded at the time of the signing. When news broke that Milwaukee had won the right to negotiate with the Japanese outfielder, fans immediately took to Google to learn anything they could about their new outfielder. It didn’t take long for Aoki to leave his own impression, giving the Brewers more than they could have even hoped for. Not only did he hit for average, but Aoki showed some pop in his bat with 10 home runs and swiped 30 bases. A Gold Glove centerfielder in Japan, Aoki made the switch to right field flawlessly.

Now the question is can he do it again? There’s nothing that says the 31-year-old can’t. He was consistent from Opening Day through the final game of the season, rarely going through a rough patch. Aoki passed on representing Japan in the World Baseball Classic to focus on preparing for his second season in the big leagues. Aoki probably peaked and got the most out of his potential in 2012, but that’s alright. He doesn’t have to be better than he was last year, just the same steady force at the top of the lineup.

GOMEZ SAYS: “This year is special for me. When you have a good season, you have to get better. I worked on my body to get stronger and faster than I used to be. I take my time with my family and work out every day so when I come to spring training I’m ready to start right away.”

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