Rotation has Brewers ready to win NL Central

PHOENIX — They were once Harvey’s Wallbangers. Then they were the Prince and his Court.

Regardless of the moniker hung on the Milwaukee Brewers, the one thing it seemed they were known was the heavy lumber in the lineup.

Not anymore.

The Brewers just might have the deepest pitching staff not only in the NL Central this year, but in the entire National League, which is why the idea of them defending their division title has merit.

The Cincinnati Reds are awfully good, and should learn from the struggles of a year ago. St. Louis, however, has three major voids — Albert Pujols, Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa — along with growing uncertainty about the health of right-hander Chris Carpenter.

And the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates are … well, they are the Cubs, Astros and Pirates.

It is not by chance that the Brewers have such a good chance for a postseason return.

Hidden amid the fascination of an offense built around the explosive bats of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun a year ago, when the Brewers won the second division title in franchise history, was the fact that Brewers general manager Doug Melvin had his eye on the future, convinced even before last season started that Fielder wouldn’t be around this year.

When he was making the trades for starting pitchers Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke, a critical factor was that the Brewers had control of both of them not only in 2011 but also in 2012.

“I heard a lot of people say we made the deals because we were in a one (year) and done situation with Prince headed to free agency,” said Melvin. “Believe me, that wasn’t our mindset. With the players we gave up to get those two pitchers, the key was we felt they could be critical factors for us this year.”

Then, during the past offseason, the Brewers caught a break.

Francisco Rodriguez, a closer by trade who waived his no-trade from the Mets to join the Brewers in July, filed for free agency, but then accepted the Brewers offer of salary arbitration. That meant he was back with the Brewers, where he is making $8 million, but it is only for one year, which makes it something the Brewers can live with.

“We had $3 million budgeted for signing the draft picks we would have picked up (for losing Rodriguez as a free agent) so really, in terms of budgeted money it cost us $5 million, and it changed the look of our bullpen.”

The key is that Rodriguez has bought into the idea of pitching the eighth to set up closer Josh Axford. Manager Ron Roenicke, however, has Rodriguez available to close on days Axford needs a rest. But, more important, he was able to move the strong arms of Kameron Loe and Jose Veras for sixth and seventh inning work.

“We’ve just shortened the game,” Marcum said. “As a starter, you go out there with the idea of pitching eight, nine innings, but if you are the other team you know that with a bullpen like we have, once our starter gets to  the sixth we’ve got fresh arms to finish the job.”

It all, however, starts with the starting rotation.

A good rotation can hide flaws. It can make a solid bullpen even stronger by lessening the workload on the bullpen, and it can hide offensive failings because of less pressure to score runs.

The Brewers have a real good rotation.

They used six starters last year — with Marco Estrada filling in the seven times help was needed for the quintet of Yovani Gallardo, Marcum, Randy Wolf, Greinke and Chris Narveson.

The rotation won more games (73) than any other NL team except Philadelphia (76), and lost fewer games (43) than any other rotations except the Phillies and Cardinals, both of which lost 42. The starters averaged slightly more than six innings a start. The bullpen, meanwhile, worked the fourth fewest innings in the NL.

“This was our plan,” Melvin said. “We were prepared (at the start of spring training last year) to lose Prince. We never put him out there for trade. What phone calls we received, the proposals weren’t interesting. So we decided. `Let’s go the other way. Let’s try to win, and let’s add pitching to give us a chance to win not just last year.”

With pitching in mind, and with no realistic way to replace Fielder’s offense, the Brewers focus this offseason was strengthening the defense, and they have every reason to feel that second baseman Rickie Weeks is joined by beefed up gloves at the three other infield spots. Aramis Ramirez was signed to take over third from inconsistent Casey McGehee, who went to Pittsburgh for Veras. Veteran Alex Gonzalez adds a steady glove at short. Mat Gamel is an upgrade in the field over Fielder.

The important aspect of the plan is that the players bought into it.

As much as the Brewers enjoyed Fielder’s bat, there is no self-pity in the Brewers clubhouse over the fact that he is gone.

“The Brewers knew when they couldn’t get Prince signed (before last spring) he was gone,” Wolf said. “The Brewers are in a city of 600,000. For the size of the town they generate amazing revenue, but it’s not a crazy TV market.

“When you have a player like Prince, headed to free agency, really the only way you retain him is if he has a bad year. If he has a great year, the market is huge and the bar (for the contract value) gets set out of reach. Nobody’s at fault. Both sides did what was best for them.”

And there’s every reason that the best for both sides can work out real well.

Fielder is now in Detroit, where his father made his mark after a tour in Japan, a part of a Tigers team heavily favored in the AL Central.

And the Brewers are in prime position to win back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history.