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Likely slow rebuild underway with Milwaukee Brewers

PHOENIX -- The Milwaukee Brewers are having so much fun in spring training that they're oblivious to the league-wide perception that six months of lousy baseball await them from April through September.

It's going to take a sustained player development effort to catch up to the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Central, so Milwaukee is focused on exercising patience and hoarding prospects. The signs are certainly encouraging: ESPN's Keith Law lists the Brewers' farm system as the fifth-best in the game this year after ranking it a sorry No. 28 in 2015.

But long-term gain comes with short-term pain -- not to mention annoying questions concerning the franchise's direction. Two springs ago, Milwaukee's players were besieged with inquiries about Hank, the lovable orphan pup who made his way into camp and became a national sensation. This year, it's all about "tanking."

Any discussion of the "T" word inevitably mentions the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies and the Brewers as teams that are taking a pass on the pretense of competitiveness and hoping a journey to the depths of losing provides a quicker route back to winning. Those teams aren't thrilled with the inference, and neither are the established players who dot their rosters.

"It's completely irrelevant to me," said outfielder Ryan Braun, Milwaukee's marquee name. "I don't pay any attention to it. I couldn't care less. We just focus on the things we can control, and that's it.

"But I think as an organization, if you have young players you believe in, at some point you have to see what they can do. Any small- or mid-market team is going to be dependent upon their system to develop players. We're not going to be able to consistently go out and get the top free agents. So the reality is, you have to see what they can do at some point."

The Brewers' offseason was underwhelming, to say the least. Adam Lind, Jean Segura, Khris Davis and Francisco Rodriguez are gone from the team that went 68-94 a year ago, while Chris Carter, Aaron Hill, Will Middlebrooks and Jonathan Villar are the most prominent new faces in camp. The Brewers are short on household names and players who cash big checks -- not necessarily in that order.

Braun and pitcher Matt Garza will make a combined $31.5 million, which projects to about half the 2016 team payroll. Rather than go out and sign an Austin Jackson for a year to play center field, the Brewers have thrown open the job to nine candidates in camp. Best of luck, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Alex Presley, Shane Peterson, Eric Young Jr., Rymer Liriano, Ramon Flores, Keon Broxton, Brett Phillips and Michael Reed.

Phillips, whose middle name is "Maverick," has made the biggest waves early in camp by appearing in a viral video with a laugh that's reminiscent of a donkey's bray. If his performance matches his personality, he has a chance to be a big fan favorite at Miller Park.

"He plays with his hair on fire," said Brewers manager Craig Counsell. "I love that type of style. And when you add more fundamentals to that style, you get a really exciting player. He adds a great energy piece to your group."

David Stearns, Milwaukee's new general manager, was in Houston last season when the Astros sent Phillips, outfielder Domingo Santana and pitchers Josh Hader and Adrian Houser to the Brewers for veteran center fielder Carlos Gomez and back-end starter Mike Fiers. Time will tell, but the Brewers hope their haul could be as productive as the array of players the Phillies acquired from the Texas Rangers for Cole Hamels last summer.

Orlando Arcia, who hit .307 for Double-A Biloxi at age 20, is in the mix with Corey Seager and J.P. Crawford in the next wave of elite shortstop talents. Arcia, Phillips, outfielder Trent Clark and pitcher Jorge Lopez all made Law's top 100 prospects list, while outfielder Michael Reed fell just short.

All those kids in Milwaukee's camp are attacking even the most mundane drills with zeal. Counsell, who was thrown into the fire after the Brewers fired Ron Roenicke in early May, shows signs of being much more comfortable in the manager's seat in his second year.

"There's always optimism, enthusiasm and excitement this time of year," Braun said. "But this is easily the best first week of spring training I've ever been a part of. The whole vibe and the energy are really good. I think we have more potential impact young players than we've had at any point over the last 10 years, and that's exciting."

Braun, whose $105 million contract extension runs through 2020, is likely to be around when several of Milwaukee's prized prospects graduate to the majors. That's probably not the case for catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who has one more year and a 2017 club option left on his contract. Lucroy has increasingly become the focus of trade chatter, and he doesn't appear to be a fit for a team in rebuild mode.

"It was a tough offseason," Lucroy said. "I was being traded every other week, rumors-wise. I had never really gone through that before, so I didn't know what to expect. Now I'm here, and the best course of action is to believe I'm going to stay here all year. That's pretty much what I'm banking on. It's the best course of action for me and my family."

The Brewers have a record of 889-893 during Mark Attanasio's 11 years as owner, so no one knows how he'll react when the team reaches bottom. Attanasio has a reputation as the hands-on type, but he'll have to give Stearns and Counsell some operating space when the Brewers lose and the pressure builds to start rushing some of the prospects to the big leagues.

The organizational game plan is in place, and there's legitimate hope for better days at Miller Park. Milwaukee fans will just have to keep reminding themselves of that in June, July and August, when things have a chance to get ugly.