Milwaukee Brewers: Biggest Questions Facing Club with Ryan Braun Now Exonerated

The Milwaukee Brewers came into their first spring training workouts this week with what looked to be a plethora of question marks and concerns about their club moving forward.  But when news broke over Ryan Braun’s reported successful drug-testing appeal to Major League Baseball that would eradicate his previous 50-game suspension, a large chunk of their uncertainties were put to bed.

But even with Braun now set to join the Brewers in Maryvale Baseball Park in Arizona for what now looks to be a promising start to their NL Central title-defense, there are plenty of question marks concerning Milwaukee as preseason workouts and games begin to commence.  Let’s take a gander at a few of those question marks.

Is Rickie Weeks Anywhere Near Full Health?

Rickie Weeks has grappled with injuries throughout his career, but his latest wound could be a real concern moving forward.  Suffering a serious ankle injury in late July, Weeks’ struggled to find his rhythm offensively after returning late in the regular season and all through the postseason.  Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was quoted earlier this week saying that an injury of Weeks’ magnitude will likely have an impact on how well he is able to perform on a day-to-day basis.  If that’s the case, then what should Brewers fans expect out of Rickie Weeks this season?  How well is his ankle currently?  These are just a few questions concerning the future of Milwaukee’s second baseman as spring training heats up.

Who Will Bridge the Gap Between the Starters and Late-Inning Relievers?

Veteran relievers Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins were able to bridge the gap between Milwaukee’s starters and their go-to late-inning relievers with great efficiency last season.  Unfortunately, both left through free-agency this past winter — who will step up and assume that key role?

Cameron Loe has always been considered at the very least a serviceable middle-inning reliever but has been inconsistent at times.  Newly-acquired right-hander Jose Veras (left) has proved to be a strikeout-oriented relief-man throughout his career.  How about Marco Estrada or potential 22-year-old call-up Wily Peralta?

Needless to say, Ron Roenicke and pitching coach Rick Kranitz have quite the conundrum on their hands as opening day creeps closer.

Can Mat Gamel Be Trusted?

Mat Gamel has been waiting in the wings for his shot at the full-time staring job at first-base for a while now.  And while he brings a tremendous amount of minor-league proficiency, his short-lived tenure in the big-leagues has been disheartening to say the least.

Since breaking through to the majors back in 2008, Gamel has logged 194 plate appearances but has only a .222 BA to show for it.  He has also notably struggled with strikeouts and is probably below-average with the glove, as well.

According to Brewers beat-writer Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Gamel says he’s currently in the best shape of his life and has refined his craft considerably over the offseason.  If that holds true, Gamel could be in for a breakout season at first-base.  But right now, Brewers fans will have to see it before they can believe it.

With Braun Back in the Picture, Where Does Nori Aoki Fit In?

General manager Doug Melvin inked three-time Japanese batting champ Norichika Aoki last month to help fill the void that would have been left by Ryan Braun if not for his overturned suspension.  But with Braun now back in the picture, where does (and will) Aoki fit in?

With his potent bat and substantial experience playing every corner of the outfield, one would have to assume that manager Ron Roenicke can find a spot for Aoki in the lineup — but where and how often will he take the field?

Is Shaun Marcum Past His Postseason Woes?

After a scintillating regular season where he staked his claim as arguably baseball’s best away-from-home pitcher, Shaun Marcum struggled greatly during postseason play.  In his first three career playoff starts, Milwaukee’s first preeminent offseason acquisition logged just 9.2 total innings and conceded 16 runs, all of which were earned.  He only managed to strike out five batters and allowed an uncharacteristic three home runs, additionally.

Marcum is a seasoned veteran with a ton of experience but his postseason mishaps have left fans worried throughout the offseason.  Will he rebound and return to his steadfast self or will his indelible struggles perpetuate into this season?

Is Alex Gonzalez Really a Substantial Upgrade over Yuniesky Betancourt?

Expectations for newly-acquired veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez will be very high this season.  After watching Yuniesky Betancourt commit 21 errors in 149 games last season with little dependability in 2011, Gonzalez will be on a rather short leash when it comes to making mistakes in the field.

But do fans even need to worry? Gonzalez, who has north of 12 seasons playing shortstop at the major league level, has become notorious for his efficiency and range with his glove.  With a career .972 fielding percentage and 4.23 range factor, he’s been  one of the most dependable defensive shortstops in baseball since entering in the league in 1998.

Nevertheless, two questions need to be asked: Firstly, Will Gonzalez’s defensive capabilities be worth the $4.25 Million the Brewers will fork over to him this season and secondly, and more importantly, will there be a noticeable difference between Gonzalez’s game and Betancourt’s game in the field?

Will Aramis Ramirez Provide Enough Protection for Ryan Braun?

Ryan Braun may be back, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the Brewers’ problems on offense.  Now without Prince Fielder for the first time in close to eight seasons, free-agent addition Aramis Ramirez now likely protecting Braun in Milwaukee’s lineup.  The appropriate question now worth asking is: Can Ramirez provide adequate protection for Braun this season?

Ramirez, who will turn 34 years young in July, has seen his production slip gradually over the past few seasons, and hasn’t put together a “full” season since he played 149 games back in 2008.  Will his aging body hold up as the season progresses?  For that matter, will his waning bat even be enough to give the 2011 NL MVP protection?  His production at the plate will go a long way in determining whether or not Milwaukee makes it back to the postseason.

Alec Dopp covers the Milwaukee Brewers as a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @alecdopp and read his blog.

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