From Comcast SportsNetMILWAUKEE (AP) -- Ryan Braun skipped the Milwaukee Brewers' fan festival last January, remaining mostly quiet while he waited for a decision in his appeal of a 50-game suspension under baseball's drug policy.What a difference a year makes.The 2011 NL MVP was on hand Sunday as the Brewers held their annual winter party just weeks before the team is scheduled to report to spring training. And the focus was on Milwaukee's inexperienced rotation and carrying over last season's strong finish, not on his rocky stretch from a year ago."There's always so much optimism this time of year but I think there are more unknowns than this time last year because of the lack of experience with our starting pitchers," Braun said. "Last year, (Zack) Greinke and (Shaun) Marcum were guys with longer track records but this group is very talented. There's a lot of uncertainty but certainly a lot of talent."Well off the pace in the NL Central, the Brewers traded Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels last July. Marcum was bothered by right elbow tightness for much of the season, then signed with the New York Mets over the winter.Now Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers are part of a youthful group poised to take on a bigger role, and Chris Narveson likely will be back in the rotation if he's fully recovered from shoulder surgery that ended his 2012 season after just two starts."It's no different than when we went with our young positional players: Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Ricky Weeks, Prince Fielder," general manager Doug Melvin said. "The reason we got Greinke and (Randy) Wolf a couple years ago was to bide time to give our younger guys the ability to develop in the big leagues. Now it's their time to do it on the big league level."Marco Estrada, there's only two guys with a better walks to strikeouts ratio in the major leagues. Michael Fiers had a better strikeouts per nine innings than a whole list of quality pitchers. I'm banking on some of their performance of last year in August and September."A year ago, the Brewers were coming off one of their most successful seasons since the franchise moved to Milwaukee. Braun and Fielder combined to lead the Brewers to the 2011 NL Central title and an appearance in the league championship series.But Fielder signed a big free-agent deal with Detroit last January and Braun was hounded by the suspension for much of last winter. He tested positive for elevated testosterone levels but arbitrator Shyam Das ruled in favor of the slugger due to chain of custody issues involving the sample, throwing out the penalty during spring training.Braun responded with another monster season, hitting .319 with 112 RBIs and leading the NL in home runs (41), total bases (356) and OPS (.987). He finished second in NL MVP voting behind Giants star Buster Posey.The left fielder anchors a lineup that returns almost completely intact after leading the National League in home runs, RBIs, runs, stolen bases and extra-base hits -- quite the impressive feat for the first season since Fielder left. First baseman Corey Hart will miss the start of the season due to a right knee injury, but is expected to play this year."When Ryan is healthy, Ryan can have a better year than he had last year and a better year than he had the year before," manager Ron Roenicke said. "He's capable of doing that. We need to keep him on the field and keep him healthy."Braun is one of 14 members of the Brewers' organization slated for the World Baseball Classic. Pool play for the international competition begins in early March."It's a tremendous honor to represent your country," said Braun, who was born in Mission Hills, Calif., and played college ball at the University of Miami. "You don't know how many opportunities you'll get to do that -- this tournament only happens once every four years, and four years from now who knows -- for all of us -- what our health situation will be, where we'll be in the game, whether we'll even get an opportunity to be invited."For me, I think it was a no-brainer. As long as I was healthy, it was something I was definitely going to do."While the majority of Milwaukee's position players are back, the pitching staff is full of question marks. The Brewers completely rebuilt their bullpen, save for closer John Axford and setup man Jim Henderson. Veterans Mike Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny and Burke Badenhop will fill some of the innings, with a crop of prospects expected to fill the rest along with rounding out the rotation.A couple of the young players got valuable experience last season after Milwaukee slumped to a 54-66 record on Aug. 19. The Brewers went 27-13 to finish the year.Braun thinks that experience will help in 2013."You've already seen them succeed at the highest level," he said. "It's one thing to be a prospect and have success in the minor leagues but to see Rogers and Peralta come up, Fiers, what he did all year ... to see all those guys come up and succeed at this level, it gives us as a team confidence that they can produce, succeed and thrive at this level."
If you haven't heard, the Bears are in the market for a quarterback.
It's no surprise that finding a long-term solution at the position will be at the top of GM Ryan Pace's to-do list as it's likely Jay Cutler has played his last game in a Bears uniform.
The Bears have a bevy options this offseason as they're saddled with the No. 3 selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, and have over $54 million of salary cap space — before roster cuts and an added $8 million in roll over money.
Having the 3rd overall pick, the opportunity is going to present itself for the Bears to nab one of the draft's top quarterbacks or add to their young defensive core with a player like Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen (who ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has the Bears selecting in his latest mock draft) or LSU's Jamal Adams (Kiper Jr. also has him as a possibility for the Bears).
If quarterback is the choice, that's where the real debate begins.
The 2017 draft marks one of the rare years where there isn't a consensus No. 1 quarterback. The four signal-callers likely to hear there name called within the first two rounds are UNC's Mitch Trubisky, Clemson's Deshaun Watson, Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer and Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes.
Who comes off the board first? That may change 100 times between now and Thursday, April 27.
Despite only starting one year at Chapel Hill, Trubisky has the strongest case to be the first quarterback taken. Trubisky threw for 3,748 yards and 30 touchdowns and added 308 yards on the ground and five rushing scores in his first full year as a starter in 2016.
If the Bears have their eyes set on Trubisky, they may have to pull off a trade as Kiper Jr. doesn't see the former Tar Heel lasting to the third pick. In his conference call on Thursday, Kiper Jr. said it's Trubisky's dream to play for his hometown Cleveland Browns, and sees him in play for both the Browns at No. 1 and the San Francisco 49ers at No. 2.
Would the Bears pull the trigger on Watson if Trubisky is off the board? Kiper Jr. believes Watson would be a stretch for the Bears at No. 3 and right now he sees Watson as a fit with the Buffalo Bills at No. 10. Kiper Jr. had a second-round grade on Watson before he shined on the big stage in the College Football Playoff. Watson's stock catapulted back into the first-round mix after he torched Alabama for 463 yards and four touchdowns en route to leading Clemson to a National Championship.
By selecting a defensive player at No. 3, the Bears could still have the opportunity to draft their quarterback of the future in the second round. Kiper Jr. believes both Mahomes and Kizer will be available on Day 2 where the Bears hold the 34th overall selection in the draft.
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What happens if the Bears don't come away with one of the draft's top quarterbacks? They could look toward free agency or the trade market.
The downfall of the free agent market is that the best available option is former Tampa Bay Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon — he hasn't started a game in almost three years. You can cross Kirk Cousins off the wish list because there's a better chance of Brett Favre coming out of retirement and leading the Browns to a Super Bowl in 2017 than the Washington Redskins letting Cousins walk in free agency. The Bears also could elect to bring back two of their own unrestricted free agents in Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, but neither would provide an ample long-term fixture at the position.
One of the most intriguing players available on the trade market is New England Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The connection between him and the Bears runs deep as Garoppolo starred at Rolling Meadows High School in the Chicagoland area and played his college football at Eastern Illinois — the same alma mater as Pace — before he was selected by the Patriots in the second-round of the 2014 NFL Draft. In limited snaps backing up future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, Garoppolo has shown potential to be an above-average NFL quarterback, but unless the Patriots step down from their rumored asking price of a 2017 first-round pick and more, trading away the No. 3 pick would be too high of a price for the Bears to pay.
The Bears could explore the possibility of trading for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to serve as a stopgap and help groom a young quarterback, but bringing in the veteran Romo — just four starts since 2014 due to various injuries — would be a lateral move, and the Bears would likely be better off keeping Cutler for another season.
With less than two months until the start of free agency on March 9, we'll finally get our first clue then as to which direction the Bears will go at quarterback this offseason.
Grab a pocket pack of tissues for this one.
Bears icon Charles Tillman released an emotional tell-all article on The Players' Tribune Thursday.
He starts off discussing how often he moved around as a kid with his dad in the Army and little things like learning cursive before delving into growing up in Germany and learning to communicate through sports.
It then moves on to the NFL Draft and coming up through the Bears with Lance Briggs, then jumping to the Super Bowl and what it was like to cover Calvin Johnson and Marvin Harrison.
Tillman even provides a fascinating take on how being a new dad affected his play on the field because he was so tired and stressed.
It was refreshing to hear a player talk like that. In everyday life, you hear all the time about first-time parents being exhausted and stressed, but now one of the most elite athletes in the world — whose job is exclusively in the public eye and his performance is dissected weekly by millions — is saying the same thing.
He discusses how he got past that stress and at this point, you're nearly halfway through the article and it's easy to think this is just like any other athlete's story.
But then Tillman gets serious and the story turns heart-wrenching.
The man affectionately known as "Peanut" takes us into the hospital room as he and his wife are told their young daughter, Tiana, may not make it through the night.
Tillman recounts the gripping tale behind how his family very nearly fell apart and how they climbed back to where they are today.
Give it a read. It's a fantastic snapshot into the career of one of the best Bears players ever, but also into the life of one of the truly great people to ever put on the orange and navy.