If you Google “ryan braun first base,” you get more than 2.5 million results.
It’s a topic that’s been brought up by fans for years, dating back to 2014 or so, when Braun’s nagging injuries started to pile up. But it’s also been one that was never truly close to becoming a reality, for a variety of reasons -- either the outfield depth wasn’t quite there (Khris Davis and Gerardo Parra were eventually traded), or the team found solid enough contributors to man first (like Adam Lind, Chris Carter, and Eric Thames/Jesus Aguilar) and such a move wasn’t necessary.
But now, it seems like a distinct possibility, after the Brewers not only didn’t solve their outfield logjam, but actively built it up higher (at least at the Major League level) with the surprising additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain on Thursday night.
”Move Braun to First” has gone from a phrase that draws eye rolls and chuckles from the reporters who cover the team to something the team may actually be considering, at least according to Ken Rosenthal.
In an article today for The Athletic (subscription required), Rosenthal says the Brewers have kicked around the idea of giving Braun starts at first base as a way to avoid having to deal budding star Domingo Santana. From the free portion of Rosenthal’s piece:
The team will continue listening to offers on Santana, as well as outfielders Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips, as it searches for starting pitching. But club officials acquired Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain on Thursday with the idea of them joining Santana to form potentially the best outfield in baseball, major league sources say.
Left fielder Ryan Braun, a Brewers fixture since 2007 who is owed $57 million through 2020, still would fit with the club, but not in his accustomed role as an everyday outfielder. Sources say the Brewers have discussed using Braun at first base, a position he never has played professionally. Braun, 34, could start at first against left-handed pitching while remaining part of an outfield rotation.
The Brewers likely would play Braun at first only if he was comfortable with the plan.
Coincidentally, Braun did seem comfortable with the idea just a few months ago, saying he’d be receptive to something like what’s being floated now during a radio interview with WTMJ back in October:
“If they want me to play first, I think if it’s something that’s going to help our team at any point, or if it’s just a few games depending on our personnel, I’m not opposed to it by any means. If they approach me with that, I’m open to it.”
If Braun can adjust defensively -- and if the decision is made ahead of Spring Training, there may be time for him to take a crash course at first base -- it’s an alignment that makes a lot of sense.
Rosenthal points out behind the pay wall that while Thames had a productive 2017 overall at first base, he struggled mightily in the second half and only had a .664 OPS against left-handers on the year. That led to Aguilar getting more playing time and the position eventually being split into a true (and very productive) platoon.
Braun, who has famously crushed left-handed pitching his entire career (.331/.400/.617 in more than 1500 plate appearances against them), would be a fearsome combination with Thames at first, while still likely getting starts in the outfield. It’s an arrangement that might also benefit Braun’s longterm health, especially after a year in which he was plagued by calf injuries playing in the outfield. Between starts at first base and his now-usual carefully managed playing schedule, there should theoretically be enough at-bats to go around for Braun, Cain, Yelich and Santana.
Of course, there are more mouths to feed than just those four. While shifting Braun to first base even part time might allow the Brewers enough at-bats to keep Santana, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be opportunities for one of Keon Broxton or Brett Phillips -- or even both of them, given that Cain and Yelich both can play center field.
It’s pretty clear that David Stearns’ next tactic will be trying to continue to spin that outfield depth into help elsewhere, whether it’s in the starting rotation or second base. That might still include dealing Santana, but if Rosenthal’s report is to be believed, it’s not what Stearns would prefer to do.
At Lorenzo Cain’s (re)introductory press conference, Stearns confirms that they’ll give Braun some looks at first base once everyone gets to camp next month.
#Brewers GM David Stearns on possibility that Ryan Braun would play some 1B to ease OF glut: "That's something we're open to exploring in spring training and see where it leads. It's something Ryan is open to."— Tom (@Haudricourt) January 26, 2018
Counsell on Braun: "What we're going to explore is can he play some first base."— Tom (@Haudricourt) January 26, 2018
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference