Even with Ryan Braun entering 2014 having a known nerve issue in his thumb and even with him entering the year with question marks surrounding how he'll perform assumedly completely PED-free, I don't think most people would have thought we'd be talking about him so late in the MVBrewers discussion.
Yet, here we are. Braun has come off by far the worst season of his career, did not make the top-10 of MVBrewers as voted on by all you readers. He fell behind Scooter Gennett, Mike Fiers, Francisco Rodriguez and Matt Garza, among others. And the Brewers still owe him over $100 million over the next six years.
Braun is two years removed from a season where he hit .319/.391/.595 with a league-leading 41 home runs. He's three years removed from an MVP winning campaign that saw him hit .332/.397/.597 with 33 homers.
In 2014, Braun hit .266/.324/.453 with 19 home runs, 81 RBI, and 68 runs scored over 135 games. That's a .777 OPS and a .340 wOBA. That latter number puts him on par with guys like Lonnie Chisenhall, Brian Dizier, Adam Eaton, Yan Gomez, etc. etc.
Make no mistake, Braun was still good in 2014 and still had value. His defense brought his fWAR down to 1.2, but I don't buy that as I think his glove is underrated by those calculations. He's not stellar in the outfield, but he's not that bad. Still, the Brewers didn't need 'good' Ryan Braun. They needed RYAN "MVP" BRAUN all-caps. Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy are amazing, talented players. They also both have their flaws and, though they're close, probably aren't the kind of players to lead a team to any championships barring them having a supporting cast of other really good players.
Ryan Braun, pre-thumb injury, is the kind of player who can lead a team. With him at anywhere close to full strength, Gomez and Lucroy are second-and-third-best players. Adam Lind, who had a .376 wOBA in the AL East last year, becomes the team's, what...fifth or sixth best hitter?
Hopefully Braun's cryotherapy will work wonders, release him of the pain in his thumb, and allow him to come close to the type of player we know he can be. If Braun is relatively healthy, the Brewers put themselves in the conversation for team to beat in the NL Central. If Braun remains one-handed, the Brewers need a whole lot of other things to go right to remain in contention.
The Brewers put their future in Braun's hands when they signed him to a contract that would have seemed implausible for any other player any other year. Now their future rests in just one of his hands, and we have months to wait and see if he can come back strong.
Most of Braun's best games in 2014 came early in the season, when his thumb was still moderately healthy sort of. In fact, his two best games came just 11 days apart from one another in April.
The first was during a 10-4 win against the Phillies on April 8. That day he socked three home runs in five plate appearances, bringing in seven runs overall. Just over a week later, against the Pirates on April 19, Braun led Milwaukee to an 8-7 win when he went 3-5 with two homers, three RBI and four runs scored. His second blast that day came with a runner on and Milwaukee down a run in the ninth inning. Here's the video:
Ryan Braun is in the last year of his original, beautiful eight-year contract totaling $45 million signed prior to the 2008 season. That contract will see him earn $12 million in 2015. He also has a no-trade clause wherein he can block deals to six teams and will earn an additional $50,000 if he makes the All Star game next year.
Starting in 2016, his five-year, $105 million contract extension will kick in. He'll earn $19 million annually from '16-'18, then $18 million in 2019 and $16 million in 2020. There is a mutual option for 2021 worth $15 million with a $4 million buyout. That option-year salary could increase based on escalators in his contract. A total of $18 million in salary over this extension will be deferred and paid in equal installments from 2022-2031. Braun will also have full no-trade protection when his extension kicks in.