By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Dec 18, 2012 at 11:02 AM Photography: David Bernacchi

Zack Greinke smiled – as much as Greinke can smile – shook hands with Magic Johnson, and tugged the blue cap with white "L.A." on it over his head.

Six years, $147 million.

Across the country, Dan Haren signed a one-year, $13 million deal with Washington. Ryan Dempster, two years, $26.5 million in Boston.

Of the top starting pitchers available on the free agent market, the Milwaukee Brewers were most seriously connected to Dempster, though in hindsight that connection was tenuous at best.

The lack of activity may be concerning for some, but much can happen in the nearly 60 days before pitchers and catchers can report to spring training. On the other hand, the Brewers may be ready to go with a young starting rotation anchored by Yovani Gallardo, an All-Star who will turn 27 in late February.

Chris Narveson will turn 31 later this month and is expected to be back from rotator cuff surgery. He had earned a spot in the 2012 rotation off his 11-8 campaign in the Brewers division-winning season of 2011.

Without the addition of a veteran, the final three spots of the rotation will likely be made up of Marco Estrada (29) and a combination of Mike Fiers (27), Mark Rogers (27 in January) and Wily Peralta (23).

The quartet proved to be revelation in 2012 as the Brewers rallied from a sizable late-summer deficit to crawl back into the wildcard hunt over the final two weeks of the season.

To them, the questions of whether they can do it again come only from outside the clubhouse.

Estrada made 23 starts and appeared six times in relief, going 5-7 with a 3.64 Earned Run Average and struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings. He finished with a WAR of 1.4, and believes his production in the rotation over the last two years in replacing an injured Greinke and Narveson has been enough to warrant a legitimate look in 2013.

"I think I've shown enough that I'm a decent starting pitcher in the major leagues," he said. "I think I've shown enough to where I should hopefully be in their plans for next year. If they need to go other ways then they need to, but I'd like to stay here and keep showing them that I can be a starter. I don't know what else I could've done, so hopefully I'm at least in their minds for next year."

Estrada is the most proven of the four, as Fiers, Rogers and Peralta were unknowns at the major league level.

Rogers, the fifth pick in the 2004 draft, has battled injuries his entire career but remained healthy for all of 2012. Between Class AAA Nashville and Milwaukee, Rogers made 25 starts and threw over 100 innings. Before being shut down for the season due to an innings restriction, Rogers went 3-1 with a 3.92 ERA with the Brewers.

The most important thing Rogers learned?

"Knowing that I could pitch here, knowing I don't have to do anything extra," he said. "I don't have to try to make my pitches better than they naturally are – just to pitch – that it's important to go out there and trust my stuff. I felt when I did that I had success. That's the most important thing for me. To get up here, to get my feet wet, have the opportunity to pitch here and have a little bit of success was very important."

The right-hander may still be treated cautiously come the spring and is a candidate to at least begin the season in the bullpen. For him, that matters little – this winter is the first time in a long time that Rogers can prepare for a season the right way. That, and his attitude, may help make manager Ron Roenicke's decision easier if one of the four needs to become part of the relief corps.

"Tell you what, it's the greatest feeling in the world to go into an offseason 100 percent healthy," Rogers said. "Knowing that I'll show up in spring training next year completely ready to go without a doubt in my mind or anybody in the organization's is a really, really, really good feeling. It's been a long time since I've been able to say that. I'm looking forward to next year, but it's going to be an important offseason for me, as well. I don't want to get shut down next year. I don't want to run into the same kind of issues. I certainly don't want to get hurt again.

"I feel if I do that and get myself ready to go then hopefully I can be a part of this team next year in whatever capacity it may be."

Fiers, to some, is the biggest wildcard of the group. He baffled everyone, including Roenicke, for the better part of the summer before running out of gas late. He finished the year 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and a 9.5 K/9 rate along with a 1.7 WAR.

In 11 appearances (10 starts) from May to July, he was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

He lacks the draft pedigree of Rogers and Peralta, and the plus-fastball of his three counterparts. Yet, all Fiers ever seems to do is win.

"I definitely learned a lot this year," Fiers said. "This was a big year for me to come up here and have an actual role as a starter and I've got to get the job done. From a mental aspect, just being able to grind and keep your mind straight through a long season. I thought the minor league season was long and you get up here and that extra month is tough. But it was definitely something that I learned from, that I'll get better from."

The experience of being allowed to finish out the season, of being allowed to push his arm and legs past previous innings thresholds, will help him avoid any physical letdown in 2013.

"You've got to keep your body in shape and you can't really let down because there are a lot of days in late September and early October," Fiers said. "It's tough. Just to put all that together and see it come together this year it definitely helps me. It's going to help me out for however many years that I play. It was good, especially to have all these veteran guys here to show me the ropes a little bit. It's a good overall experience."

Then there is Peralta, the youngest of the group and the most dynamic. After struggling in the minors, Peralta set Miller Park on fire with a 2-1 record, 2.48 ERA in six games (five starts). He was shut down early with tightness in his right biceps, but insisted he was 100 percent healthy when the season ended.

"I feel pretty good," he said with a smile that could become a Milwaukee trademark.

Peralta no doubt has the stuff to be a major league pitcher, but he may be the one sent back to the minors for additional seasoning if a veteran pitcher is signed by the start of 2013. Such a possibility won't affect his offseason mindset, however.

"I just plan on being part of this group," Peralta said. "I'm very happy with the way that we played the last two months and I'm very happy too with the way I pitched. I was not surprised. I knew if I got a chance I could do something. If they give me the opportunities I enjoy doing my best and the results were good. So I'm happy with the way that I did."

There are less than two months left on the calendar before the 2013 preseason begins, and Brewers general manager Doug Melvin may yet add a veteran starting pitcher (or two) by the time the gates at Maryvale open. But if not, this group of starters is ready for the challenge of a full season.

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.