Ryan Braun made his Cactus League debut for the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend as he prepares for his 11th Major League season, all with our local nine. Since debuting back in 2007, Braun has served as a constant force in the middle of the Brewers’ lineup, though lately there’s been less certainty about his presence than in years past. With the organization entrenched in rebuild mode, Braun stands out as the lone remaining pillar of the franchise’s last playoff run back in 2011.
After Braun was reportedly close to being dealt to the Dodgers last August, it was widely assumed that talks would be revisited this past winter. One report even indicated that it was “likely” that Ryan was going to be headed to Los Angeles during the winter, even before the regular season had ended. Braun was ranked as the offseason’s #2 top available trade target by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports early on, and he was just one of the many pundits who figured that the All-Star outfielder would get moved.
As it turns out, several factors wound up tempering the expected market for Braun’s services over the winter. First off, there was a saturation of right-handed power bats available on the open market. Braun’s contract also likely served as an impediment, not only the $76 mil he’s still owed through 2020 but his limited no-trade that allows him to veto deals to 23 other teams, as well. And of course, there will always be the PED suspension skeleton in his closet which will follow Ryan for the rest of his career. Ultimately there were never any truly substantive rumors regarding Milwaukee’s franchise player, and when the dust settled on the offseason and the club reported to Maryvale Baseball Park, Braun showed up still wearing a Brewer uniform.
And so Braun and the Brewers will continue to move forward together, much to the delight of manager Craig Counsell, who gets to continue to pencil Ryan’s name in the lineup in left field. Braun is expected to anchor the offense while batting in his usual #3 spot in the order and is coming off his most successful season since prior to his suspension in 2013. He appeared in 135 games last year and in 564 trips to the plate, boasted a .305/.365/.538 batting line (136 OPS+) with 30 home runs (his sixth season of 30+ long balls) and 16 stolen bases. A move back to left field after two seasons in right helped provide a boost to his defensive metrics (+6 Defensive Runs Saved) and he still possesses the requisite speed and arm strength to be more than just a big bat in the lineup.
At this point in his career, Ryan’s value comes from more than just his on the field production, as well. As one of the few veterans remaining in the Brewers’ locker room, Braun has embraced the role of mentor to the minor leaguers brought in during Milwaukee’s youth movement. Outfield prospect Brett Phillips recently raved about what Braun brings to the table:
“Ryan Braun, the guy’s routine is unbelievable. Just learning and watching him go about his business, it’s super important for me in my career. It’s also awesome that they’re great guys and easy to talk to.”
“I take whatever I can get,” Phillips said. “Braun’s a superstar. So when he talks, I listen. He’s one of the game’s best. I can’t sit two, three lockers from him and not get any information from him. I’d be ignorant of myself if I didn’t.”
Braun has been a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and a multiple time All-Star and Silver Slugger award winner. The biggest question at this point as he heads into his age-33 season is how much longer he can continue to be a star-caliber producer for the Brew Crew. He keeps himself in impeccable shape and has yet to show any signs of slowing down at the plate, and for what it’s worth he feels very healthy this spring after battling through thumb issues two years ago and a back surgery last winter:
“Physically, I have no limitations and I feel really good,” Braun said before the first full-squad workout. “It’s the healthiest I can remember feeling at the beginning of spring training, probably ever, so that’s encouraging.
“I feel as good as I’ve ever felt. I’m confident that I’ll be able to continue to do the things that I’ve been doing for as long as possible. But I try not to look too far ahead. I always try to stay in the moment.”
If he was traded or retired today, there would be little doubt that Braun is already one of the best players to put on a Milwaukee Brewers’ uniform. Fortunately for the franchise and the fan base, Ryan says that it’s “more likely than not” that he finishes out his current contract in Milwaukee, which is especially true considering that he obtains full no-trade rights this May under the 10-5 clause. Provided he can stay healthy, that gives Braun another four or five seasons to shoot for milestones like 400 home runs and 2,000 hits, and hopefully, a few more opportunities to make the playoffs and bring a World Series championship to Milwaukee.
Braun’s goal is to play in roughly 150 games this season. But he’s still likely to continue receiving regular off days here and there, so there will be days when his bat is replaced by the likes of Kirk Nieuwenhuis or Hernan Perez is left field. Scooter Gennett has also taken some reps in left this spring and could see some action there as he continues to transition into a utility player for the Brewers.
On the Farm
Kyle Wren posted a .412 OBP between AA and AAA last year, but was left unprotected and passed over in the Rule 5 draft...Johnny Davis continues to show blazing speed (32 steals in 127 games), but his bat is unlikely to ever do much damage in the majors...Victor Roache lost much of last season to injury and doesn’t appear to have the hit tool for MLB success, but still boasts plus raw power...David Denson and Malik Collymore both struggled in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League...Troy Stokes battled some injuries but had a successful offensive campaign in Appleton...Jay Feliciano, Ryan Aguilar, and Zach Clark all enjoyed success at the rookie level affiliates last season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference