Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 2/23/12
The while elephant has left the room; Ryan Braun beat the rap. For nearly three months, since the news was first leaked that he failed a drug test in October, Ryan Braun has professed his innocence and Milwaukee Brewers fans have been waiting with anxiety over losing another key piece from a team that set a franchise record with 96 victories and advanced to a league championship series for the first time in 29 years. But just like that, the storm clouds have lifted on a Brewers season that is certain to start without departed free agent Prince Fielder and seemed likely to begin for 50 games -- without Braun. On Thursday an arbitration overturned Braun's suspension the first such reversal in MLB drug-testing history -- and ruled that Braun was not in violation of MLB's banned substance policy. What does that mean for the Brewers? Perhaps the better question is this: What does this mean for the National League? With Braun avoiding a 50-game suspension, the Brewers are suddenly favorites to repeat as National League Central Division champions even with Fielder in Detroit. The reigning NL MVP is back and a cursory glance of the Brewers' lineup shows some pretty impressive pieces. With either Rickie Weeks or Corey Hart atop the order, Nyjer Morgan, Braun and newly acquired slugger Aramis Ramirez filling out the top four and either Weeks or Hart in the five-hole, the top of the lineup has just the right balance of speed and power. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy projects to be improved offensively and longtime top prospect Mat Gamel will get his shot at first base, where it's hoped that regular action will allow him to produce much like he did during a stellar minor league career. Add that to mix a stellar starting rotation, which includes all five starters from last year, and a back-end of the bullpen that was lights-out in the second half and the Brewers project to be a tough team to beat in 2012. But make no mistake, Braun is the lynchpin to this machine. He has been since stepping into the Brewers' lineup for the first time as a rookie in 2007. With 161 home runs and 531 RBI, he's the team's biggest offensive threat. He's been one of the team's most consistent producers during his time in Milwaukee and now, with Fielder gone, he forms the heart and soul of the Brewers' offense. It's a position that Braun won't shy from. Aside from his consistency, Braun is known as a player who not only comes through in clutch situations but thrives in them. He was the guy who hit the game-winning home runs to clinch playoff spots in 2008 and last year. He is the face of the franchise. His No. 8 graces the backs of Brewers fans of all ages. For all intents and purposes, Ryan Braun IS the Milwaukee Brewers, just as Robin Yount was decades before. Braun beat the rap. He's back in the lineup. And the Brewers are poised to build upon their success of a year ago. The rest of the National League had best be prepared. Follow Andrew Wagner on Twitter.
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