Suddenly, the Brewers’ outlook is appealing

The while elephant has left the room; Ryan Braun beat the rap.

For nearly three months, since the news was first leaked that he failed a drug

test in October, Ryan Braun has professed his innocence and Milwaukee Brewers

fans have been waiting with anxiety over losing another key piece from a team

that set a franchise record with 96 victories and advanced to a league

championship series for the first time in 29 years.

But just like that, the storm clouds have lifted on a Brewers season that is

certain to start without departed free agent Prince Fielder and seemed likely

to begin — for 50 games — without Braun.

On Thursday, an arbitrator overturned Braun’s suspension — the first such

reversal in MLB drug-testing history — and ruled that NL Most Valuable Player was

not in violation of MLB’s banned substance policy.

What does that mean for the Brewers? What does this mean for the National

League Central Division?

With Braun avoiding a 50-game suspension, the Brewers are suddenly contenders

again in the division they won last season — even with Fielder in Detroit.  

The reigning NL MVP is back and a cursory glance of the Brewers’ lineup shows

some impressive pieces. With either Rickie Weeks or Corey Hart atop the order,

Nyjer Morgan, Braun and newly acquired slugger Aramis Ramirez filling out the

top four and either Weeks or Hart in the five-hole, the top of the lineup has

just the right balance of speed and power.

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy projects to be improved offensively and longtime top

prospect Mat Gamel will get his shot at first base. The Brewers hope that playing

daily will allow Gamel to produce much like he did during a stellar minor

league career.

Add that mix to a stellar starting rotation, which includes all five starters returning

from last season, and a back-end of the bullpen that was lights-out in the

second half and the Brewers project to be a tough team to beat in 2012.

But make no mistake, Braun is the lynchpin to this machine. He has been since

stepping into the lineup for the first time as a rookie in 2007. With 161 home

runs and 531 RBI, he’s the team’s biggest offensive threat. He’s been one of

the Brewers’ most consistent producers during his time in Milwaukee. With Fielder

gone, he forms the heart and soul of the club’s offense.

It’s a position that Braun won’t shy away from. Aside from his consistency,

Braun is known as a player who not only comes through in clutch situations but

thrives in them.

He hit the game-winning home runs to clinch playoff spots in 2008 and last season.

He is the face of the franchise. His No. 8 graces the backs of Brewers fans of

all ages.

For all intents and purposes, Ryan Braun IS the Milwaukee Brewers, just as

Robin Yount was decades before.

Braun beat the rap. He’s back in the lineup. And the Brewers are poised to

build upon their success of a year ago.

The rest of the NL Central Division had best be prepared.