Ryan Braun PEDs.
There, that's out of the way. Note: I am not making any accusations against the Brewers' left fielder, just acknowledging that's the first thing that a lot of Cubs fans want to mention whenever they see that name.
Regardless of how you feel about him, the man can hit. So can the rest of the Brewers, who led the National League in runs scored in 2012, even after the free-agent departure of Prince Fielder following their NL Central title year of 2011. It's their pitching that was their downfall last year; they got reasonable starting pitching even after they traded away Zack Greinke, but their relief work was horrific. John Axford, who was a lights-out closer in that NL Central title season, blew seven saves before the end of July and nine overall. Neither he nor Francisco Rodriguez ever quite got on track.
So, the Brewers let K-Rod go to free agency (he's still unsigned, but will pitch for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic) and also parted ways with seventh-inning man Kameron Loe. They've remade their pen with the likes of Mike Gonzalez, Burke Badenhop (that name always makes me think of this guy) and former Cub Tom Gorzelanny.
Will it work? No one knows, but it'd be hard for them to have a worse bullpen than they did last year.
Offensively, the Brewers return everyone from the 2012 squad, although they'll be without first baseman Corey Hart for a while after Hart had recent knee surgery. Hart hopes to be back by the end of April; perennial prospect Mat Gamel was going to get another chance to show he belongs in the major leagues, but Gamel tore his ACL in workouts last weekend and is out for the season, so the Brewers might have to start shopping the waiver wire for first-base help.
The Brewers contended for the second wild card in 2012 before falling short on the season's final weekend. They actually played their best baseball of the year after trading Greinke, going 36-23 after August 1. If they can replicate that performance in 2013, they'll have a chance to challenge the Reds for division supremacy.
The Cubs won't have to wait long to see the Brewers, as Milwaukee will be the opponent for the home opener April 8, the first of a four-game series. The Cubs will then head to Miller Park for a three-game set April 19-21, so seven of this year's first 19 games will be against the Brew Crew. Then, thanks to MLB's wacky schedulers, the two teams won't meet again until the last week of June, and then after that not until September. So much for keeping rivalries going.
Tomorrow, we'll conclude this look at the NL Central with a preview of the Pittsburgh Pirates.