MILWAUKEE — 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.
A team-by-team look at the National League Central entering spring training, including key players each club acquired and lost, and dates of the first workout for pitchers and catchers, and the full squad:
Manager: Joe Maddon (fourth season).
2017: 92-70, first place, lost to Dodgers in NLCS.
Training Town: Mesa, Arizona.
Park: Sloan Park.
First Workout: Feb. 14/19.
He's Here: RHP Brandon Morrow, RHP Tyler Chatwood, RHP Steve Cishek, LHP Drew Smyly.
He's Outta Here: RHP Wade Davis, C Alex Avila, C Rene Rivera.
Going campin': Chicago is coming off three consecutive NLCS appearances, and it looked a little tired when its title defense came to an end with a lopsided playoff loss to Los Angeles last year. The bullpen was hit hard by the Dodgers in the NLCS, and the Cubs batted just .168 in 10 postseason games. The roster returns mostly intact, but the bullpen and coaching staff each has a new look. Morrow replaces Davis at closer after agreeing to a $21 million, two-year contract. Jim Hickey takes over as pitching coach, former major league outfielder Chili Davis is the new hitting coach and Brandon Hyde moves to bench coach after Dave Martinez was hired to manage the Washington Nationals. Also worth watching this spring is a new-look Kyle Schwarber, who changed his diet and workout routine over the winter in search of more consistency.
Manager: Craig Counsell (fourth season).
2017: 86-76, second place.
Training Town: Phoenix.
Park: Maryvale Baseball Park.
First Workout: Feb. 15/20.
He's Here: OF Lorenzo Cain, OF Christian Yelich, RHP Jhoulys Chacin, RHP Yovani Gallardo, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Matt Albers.
He's Outta Here: 2B Neil Walker, OF Lewis Brinson, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Wily Peralta, RHP Carlos Torres, RHP Jared Hughes, RHP Anthony Swarzak.
Going campin': The Brewers shook up the sleepy offseason market by trading for Yelich and signing Cain to an $80 million contract on back-to-back days in late January. The bold moves shifted the franchise's focus from rebuilding to contending after a surprising 2017 season that ended with Milwaukee falling one game short of the playoffs. More moves are possible after the slick-fielding additions crowded the outfield picture. Left fielder Ryan Braun will give first base a try in spring training, and could play the position sometimes depending on his comfort level. Starts are up for grabs with Jimmy Nelson possibly out until at least June as he recovers from a partially torn labrum and strained rotator cuff. Gallardo returns to the Brewers hoping to fill a spot at the back of the rotation behind Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and Chacin, with returnees including lefty Brent Suter and promising rookie Brandon Woodruff also in the running. Second base remains a question mark with Walker a free agent after being acquired in a trade with the Mets. Eric Sogard might be better suited for a utility role, though he had a penchant for getting on base. Getting the speedy Jonathan Villar to bounce back after an underwhelming 2017 season would help.
St. Louis Cardinals
Manager: Mike Matheny (seventh season).
2017: 83-79, third place.
Training Town: Jupiter, Florida.
Park: Roger Dean Stadium.
First Workout: Feb. 14/19.
He's Here: LF Marcell Ozuna, RHP Miles Mikolas, RHP Luke Gregerson.
He's Outta Here: RHP Lance Lynn, OF Stephen Piscotty, OF Randal Grichuk, RHP Seung-hwan Oh, RHP Juan Nicasio, SS Aledmys Diaz.
Going campin': The Cardinals have had one losing season since the start of the century, but are facing immense pressure from fans after finishing behind the Cubs and Brewers in the NL Central last season. St. Louis missed the playoffs for a second straight year, the first time that's happened since 2007-08. That drought - at least by Cardinals standards - was the fuel for a busy offseason that saw them pursue NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton before coming away with Ozuna instead in a trade with the Marlins. Ozuna immediately steps in as the top power hitter for St. Louis after socking 37 home runs last season in Miami, and he'll remain in left field, where he won a Gold Glove last season. He'll be joined in the outfield by center fielder Tommy Pham, who emerged after years of injury concerns to hit 23 homes runs and steal 25 bases last season, while Dexter Fowler is moving to right. Mikolas returned from a stint in Japan and signed a two-year contract to join the rotation, which is currently without the unsigned Lynn. Gregerson enters spring training as the closer after coming over from Houston. Matheny, however, is keeping open the possibility of hard-throwing Alex Reyes moving into that role once he's fully recovered from elbow surgery that kept him out last season. St. Louis is targeting a May 1 return for Reyes, who had a 1.57 ERA and struck out 52 batters in 46 innings during his 2016 debut.
Manager: Clint Hurdle (eighth season).
2017: 75-87, fourth place.
Training Town: Bradenton, Florida.
Park: LECOM Park.
First Workout: Feb. 14/19.
He's Here: 3B Colin Moran, RHP Joe Musgrove, RHP Michael Feliz, RHP Kyle Crick.
He's Outta Here: CF Andrew McCutchen, RHP Gerrit Cole, OF John Jaso, C Chris Stewart, RHP Johnny Barbato, RHP Joaquin Benoit.
Going campin': Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington says the team isn't rebuilding following consecutive losing seasons. Funny, it sure looks that way. In a span of three days in January, the Pirates sent Cole and McCutchen, two vital cogs in their run to three straight playoff appearances from 2013-15, elsewhere rather than foot the bill for their salaries. Cole, due $6.75 million this season, was shipped to Houston while five-time All-Star and 2013 NL MVP McCutchen - and his $14.75 million salary - was traded to San Francisco. McCutchen's departure leaves a spot open in the outfield, where Sean Rodriguez will likely have the inside track as prospect Austin Meadows tries to put an injury-plagued 2017 behind him. Moran has the potential to help out David Freese at third base with Jung Ho Kang not expected to return to the U.S. after missing all of 2017 due to visa issues stemming from his DUI arrest in his native Korea in 2016. There is intrigue in the starting rotation behind Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl. The back end of the bullpen is fine after closer Felipe Rivero signed a four-year contract, but the Pirates will need six weeks of camp to figure out who will work in front of him.
Manager: Bryan Price (fifth season).
2017: 68-94, fifth place.
Training Town: Goodyear, Arizona.
Park: Goodyear Ballpark.
First Workout: Feb. 14/19.
He's Here: RHP Jared Hughes, RHP David Hernandez.
He's Outta Here: SS Zack Cozart, RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP Tim Adleman.
Going campin': The Reds lost 90 games for the third straight season, with their pitching staff the biggest problem once again. Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan were expected to anchor the rotation, but all three missed significant time - DeSclafani the entire season - because of injuries, forcing Cincinnati to go with rookies who weren't ready for the majors. Reds starters gave up the most earned runs and homers in the NL and ranked last in ERA. Bailey, DeSclafani and Finnegan are expected to be healthy for the start of camp, and their progress will be the main focus. Luis Castillo has the edge on the No. 4 spot after a strong rookie season (3.12 ERA in 15 starts), and the fifth spot is open to competition. The bullpen also was a major issue again last season, giving up the most walks and runs in the NL. Hughes and Hernandez were signed for late-inning roles ahead of closer Raisel Iglesias. A couple of bullpen spots remain open to competition. Jose Peraza moves from second base to shortstop to replace Cozart, who signed with the Angels after his All-Star season. Catcher Devin Mesoraco is making yet another comeback - he's been severely limited the last three seasons by hip, shoulder and foot injuries.
AP freelance writer Andrew Wagner contributed to this report.