As part of ESPN's offseason coverage, Buster Olney has taken to ranking the top-10 players at each position in the MLB. This week, he covered right field where, one or two years ago, Ryan Braun would have been a no-brainer to rank high on the list.
This year, Olney does not have Braun in the top-10 of right fielders league-wide.
Number one is Giancarlo Stanton, who just became the highest paid baseball player ever because that's how good he was. After that, there's Jose Bautista, Hunter Pence, Jayson Werth, Jason Heyward, Matt Kemp, George Springer, Nick Markakis, Jay Bruce and Kole Calhoun.
If we're looking at fWAR, and only looking at last year, Braun does fall out of the top-10:
Braun checks in at 14th, with 1.2 fWAR in 2014. Here's what Olney had to say about Braun, who was named an honorable mention:
"Last season, he tumbled to 37th in on-base percentage and 17th in slugging percentage among all outfielders last season; he said the other day that his surgically repaired thumb, troublesome throughout 2014, feels much better."
So, it seems that Olney is more or less going on a 'what have you done for me lately' basis and doesn't trust Braun to bounce back. Otherwise, it's a little strange to not have someone who has been one of the very best hitters in the game more often than not in the top-10 of his position.
The thumb is, of course, what's going to make most people hesitant about trusting him moving forward. Suffered in early 2013, the nerve issue he has dealt with caused him to hit just .266/.324/.453 in 2014 with 19 homers in 135 games while getting worse as the season wore on. As Olney alluded to, though, Braun says his thumb feels the best it has in years after undergoing cryotherapy. Whether that holds up when he actually begins playing full-time is another matter.
There's the steroid thing too, of course, but people are quick to bring that up when Braun's performance is down but not so quick to note that Nelson Cruz -- also on the biogenesis report, also suspended for performance enhancers -- is coming off the best season of his career and just earned a four-year contract. Braun's use of steroids is the sexy reasoning for him struggling this past year. The far more likely reason for his poor hitting is the fact his thumb was causing him to swing basically one-handed.
But his injury is, certainly, cause for concern and there are talented players ahead of him on Olney's list (though Puig's absence is also very odd). George Springer has only had half a season, but hit 20 home runs during that campaign. Despite that, he should be just as iffy as Braun moving forward given his lack of experience. Nick Markakis is a year removed from a 685 OPS and had a 729 OPS in 2014 compared to Braun's 777 OPS, though Markakis is at least a better fielder. Kole Calhoun hit about the same as an injured Braun, has mediocre defense and wasn't all that heralded as a prospect. Calhoun is almost a Khris Davis type.
If Braun can't come back from a thumb injury, it makes some sense to rank those players ahead of him. But I think you need to weigh in the fact that he is feeling good and it seems like there's at least a decent chance he comes back healthier than he has been since 2012. I think the chances of Braun becoming anywhere close to the Braun of old (.313/.374/.568 line and 147 OPS+ through his first six seasons, before injury) should be enough to knock him into the top-10 yet.
But, hey, Braun seemed to play pretty well on the road for 2014 with rains of boos coming down. Another chip on his shoulder could just be more motivation to come back stronger than ever.
If it's me, I'm still betting on Braun to prove himself as one of the top right fielders in baseball this upcoming season.