MILWAUKEE -- Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun had a big smile on his face before Friday's season opener, eager to put a tumultuous winter behind him and to see if his team is as good as he believes it is.

Asked whether he had extra incentive on this Opening Day, Braun said with a smile, "Of course. Come on, of course."

Braun is the defending National League MVP, an award he'll receive on the field at Miller Park on April 22. He spent much of his winter mounting a successful appeal of a suspension under Major League Baseball's Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

A three-member special panel ruled in Braun's favor just before Brewers position players reported for Spring Training.

"It's not so much about proving anybody wrong as it is about proving the people who all believed in me and supported me right," Braun said. "I'm definitely excited. Very motivated."

Manager Ron Roenicke has been talking with Braun throughout the spring about potential challenges ahead. The Brewers opened their season in friendly territory, but they will travel next week to Chicago and Atlanta, where the reception may not be as nice.

"Right now, he's in a really good place," Roenicke said. "The first couple weeks of spring were a little difficult, but he's back to the guy he was that I saw last year. He's very confident. He knows he had a tough offseason, mentally, and I think he's in that place right now where his focus is on having another repeat year, even better. That's hard to believe, but it's how he talks."

Braun believes the Brewers are better in 2012 than they were last season, when they set a franchise record with 96 wins in the regular season and beat the D-backs in the NL Division Series. The Brewers fell in the NL Championship Series to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals, who returned Friday as Milwaukee's Opening Day opponent.

"I think our bullpen is stronger," Braun said. "We have Zack Greinke healthy all year. I think we've gotten better defensively. I really believe this is the best team I've been a part of so far."

Life without Prince Fielder, Braun said, "is really not that much different. The biggest difference will be offensively. You don't instantly replace a guy who's one of the best offensive players in baseball. ... But we all recognized his impending free agency, and the reality that if he reached free agency, the likelihood of him re-signing here was very small."

Hart 'surprised' to be part of Opening Day

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers right fielder Corey Hart was in the Brewers' Opening Day lineup Friday for the first time in three years. Truth be told, he didn't expect this.

"I'm surprised to be here after having surgery," said Hart, who had a March 6 procedure to repair torn cartilage in his right knee. "I think I'm more excited than ever, because I'm able to help the team from Day 1."

Hart didn't have that option in 2011, when he started the season on the disabled list with a rib-cage strain. In 2010, Hart was on the Opening Day bench after a poor Spring Training led the Brewers to start veteran Jim Edmonds in right field.

On Friday, Hart was front and center in Opening Day festivities. After players were introduced along the foul lines, Joseph Attanasio, the father of the Brewers' principal owner, continued his tradition of singing the National Anthem.

Miss America Laura Kaeppeler wore her crown to throw the season's ceremonial first pitch, a strike to Brewers video coordinator Joe Crawford.

The Brewers have five players on their first Major League Opening Day roster: Norichika Aoki, Tim Dillard, Marco Estrada, Mat Gamel and Jonathan Lucroy.

"Opening Day, I don't care how many [years] you've been in baseball, it's always an exciting time because of all the work you put into getting to this point," manager Ron Roenicke said. "It's always an unknown. You can feel great about your team, and sometimes it doesn't work out, and vice versa. ... We're really comfortable and confident in what this team has a chance to do this year."

The Brewers are healthier at the start of this season than last, when they went on to win 96 regular-season games and the National League Central. Hart, starter Zack Greinke and catcher Jonathan Lucroy were among the players who began last season on the disabled list.

"If you compare last year's team at this point to this year's team, I think this year's team is better," principal owner Mark Attanasio said.

Greinke, Axford talks to continue into season

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers' contract negotiations with starter Zack Greinke and closer John Axford won't end with the start of regular season, two top officials said before Friday's season opener.

General manager Doug Melvin confirmed that talks would continue with Greinke and Axford. Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio added that the same goes for Melvin himself, manager Ron Roenicke, COO Rick Schlesinger and executive vice president-finance and administration Bob Quinn, all of whom, Attanasio said, are up for extensions.

"I know in our sport there is this demarcation of Opening Day, like everything needs to be done by Opening Day," Attanasio said. "We certainly don't operate like that."

Said Melvin: "I think we have to get away from the [concept] that there's a deadline on Opening Day on contracts. I don't think there is. ... In my mind, I don't necessarily believe in deadlines unless they're implemented by the Commissioner's Office. I think you can just go with the flow of it. If it happens, it happens, and if it doesn't, we still have the opportunity at the end of the year with any of our players."

The Brewers would prefer to lock up Greinke before he gets that far. He re-hired agent Casey Close this week, and Close and Melvin had a talk on Thursday evening. They plan to talk again Monday, Melvin said.

Greinke is entering the final year of his contract and would be the top right-hander on the free-agent market.

"There's no timeline on it," Melvin said. "I know players sometimes say they want to focus on the season, and that's fine. I respect that. It doesn't mean the GM and the agent can't talk behind the scenes. We want [Greinke] to go out and have a big year."

Axford's situation is different. He will qualify for salary arbitration next winter as a "Super 2" player, and will be under club control for the 2013-16 seasons. The Brewers have discussed a deal with Axford's agent, Dan Horwits, that would buy out some or all of those seasons, and could extend into free agency.

Melvin, the Brewers' GM since September 2002, has a contract that expires after this season. Roenicke is in the second season of a two-year deal, but he has a club option for 2013.

Attanasio said talks were "progressing nicely" with Melvin and Roenicke.

Last call

• Doug Melvin, who was the Rangers' general manager when Alex Rodriguez signed his record-setting contract in 2000, said this about the rash of megadeals in Major League Baseball: "I think you've got to see, does the excitement in the early years of a contract outweigh the agony at the end? I think you have to weigh that when you're talking about seven-, eight-, nine-year contracts. I've talked to other general managers who have done those. There's a lot of excitement when you do them, early, and a lot of pain and agony at the end."