Brewers shift spring focus from rebuilding to winning right now

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Associated Press Ex-Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain returns to the Brewers

MILWAUKEE (AP) - The rebuilding plan for the Milwaukee Brewers is a smashing success, so much so that they're not really rebuilding anymore.

Bold moves to trade for Christian Yelich and sign free agent Lorenzo Cain sent a message.

"We decided winning in 2018 was as important as to win in 2020," owner Mark Attanasio said.

A surprising 2017 season that left Milwaukee a win short of the playoffs raised hopes in what was supposed to be just the second full season of a rebuild. Rising expectations accompanied the acquisitions of Yelich and Cain.

Those NL Central meetings with the two-time division champion Chicago Cubs should be fun this year.

"Last year, I got asked where we were and if we were ahead of schedule," Attanasio said at the team's winter fan event in downtown Milwaukee. "I think we can say now we're ahead of schedule."

Some things to watch ahead of the start of spring training:

• NEW LOOK: The slick-fielding Cain and Yelich improve the outfield defense, which should help the pitching staff even if general manager David Stearns doesn't add another rotation arm. LF Ryan Braun will give first base a try in the spring to test the potential to play the position sometimes in the regular season. RF Domingo Santana, who hit 30 homers, might be a valuable trade chip in the overcrowded outfield ... Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin joins the starting staff, while Yovani Gallardo returns to the team that drafted him in hopes of securing a role in the back of the rotation. ... RHP Matt Albers comes off a standout year in Washington to help set up All-Star closer Corey Knebel.

• ROOKIES TO WATCH: Right-hander Brandon Woodruff retained his rookie status despite making eight starts. He's a candidate rotation spot. ... OF Brett Phillips also officially remains a rookie despite hitting .276 with five homers and four steals in 37 games in 2017. A good defender, Phillips could have been in line for more playing time had the Brewers not brought in Yelich and Cain.

• THEY'RE SET: The Brewers are certainly deep enough at outfield and first base, while utility man Hernan Perez and infielder Eric Sogard also give manager Craig Counsell enviable flexibility to help mix and match in the late innings. ... Cain and Yelich help lengthen a lineup anchored in the middle by Braun and 3B Travis Shaw. ... SS Orlando Arcia, already known for his glove, could be a star if he can build on what he accomplished at the plate in 2017, his first full season in the majors (.277, 15 HRs, 14 steals). ... Knebel, Albers and LHP Josh Hader give the Brewers formidable relief options in the late innings.

• THEY'RE NOT: Chacin, along with RHPs Zach Davies and Chase Anderson form a solid trio at the top of the rotation. But the Brewers will be without RHP Jimmy Nelson (shoulder) until at least June. The fifth spot in the rotation is also up grabs though Counsell could again turn to bullpen days at times. Even if Nelson is effective again, Milwaukee might be on the lookout for another veteran starter who can handle the pressure of late-season starts. ... Brewers hope Jonathan Villar can bounce back from a subpar 2017. It could be Villar, Sogard and Perez handling second base.

• ON DECK: Optimism abounds. Stearns has hit on just about even major move since taking over in October 2015, while Counsell has deftly guided the team back to relevance on the field. How the Brewers handle their outfield excess will be watched closely in the spring, while Counsell should be able to toy with different lineup combinations because of the all-around skill sets of Cain and Yelich.

• CUBS SERIES: The Brewers are giving Wisconsin residents first crack at tickets for home games against the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers say fans with a valid Wisconsin address can buy up to eight tickets starting Friday for any of the 10 games at Miller Park against the Cubs. The presale for Wisconsin residents ends on Feb. 15.

Cubs fans tend to fill Miller Park when Chicago visits Milwaukee. Miller is about 90 miles north of Wrigley Field.

The Brewers hope to challenge the Cubs this year after finishing second in the division in 2017.

"It's not that we dislike Cubs fans, per se. We just really prefer Brewers fans," the Brewers posted on Twitter .

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