Ryan Braun is entering the final guaranteed year of his five year, $105 million extension. Coming into the season, Braun suggested that 2020 could be his last.
Entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, Ryan Braun acknowledged that this could be his final season in Milwaukee — and maybe the final season of his career. On the urgency of 2020: pic.twitter.com/frxJx3k2RW— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) January 26, 2020
With a delayed start to the season, the 36-year old Brewers’ veteran looks like he is rethinking things. The designated hitter is coming to the National League for 2020, and could continue into 2021 and beyond. If it does, we might see Braun in the Brewers’ clubhouse beyond this season, as Adam McCalvy reports.
When 2020 began, Ryan Braun said "it's possible" that this would be his final season. Here's why he is rethinking that: https://t.co/yvryElb0jx— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) June 25, 2020
Obviously Braun is considering the possibility of coming back beyond 2020, but there are some real obstacles in the way. Those obstacles have to be considered and overcome.
Braun turns 37 on November 17th. Age coupled with back, thumb, calf, and shoulder injuries have taken their toll on what was once one of the best hitters in the game. While Braun is still a quality hitter when healthy, how much desire and ability is still in the tank?
If he played in 2021, the Brewers and Braun would have to deal with a mutual option that would pay the veteran $15 million if both sides agreed to exercise it. David Stearns and Company have a relatively cheap buy-out of $4 million. In essence, it would cost the Brewers $11 million to bring the veteran back. Is he worth it in the minds of Milwaukee’s top brass?
One or both sides could decline to exercise their side of the mutual option and enter into negotiations for a new contract. If that did occur, other teams could offer Braun more to play for them. If the narrative about Braun is correct, the only team that would have a chance of doing that would be the Dodgers.
Since he married in December of 2013, the Braun family has introduced three children to the world. His wife Larisa gave birth to their third child in May. With his family growing quickly and his finances secure, one could forgive him for wanting to spend most of his time with them.
Position Change if no DH in 2021
If there is no DH in 2021, Braun will find himself in the same situation that he was going to be in 2020 prior to the announcement of the universal DH. Braun knew going into 2020 he would be alternating between first base and right field for the most part. As a veteran player of his caliber, that is not the norm. Unfortunately, his best position, left field, is also the best position for Christian Yelich. Yelich (career UZR in left field 14.1) plays that position better than Braun (career UZR in left field -23.3), and Yelich will rarely be out of the lineup. That would have left Braun to play right field when Avisail Garcia or someone else was not playing it, and first base when Justin Smoak was on the bench.
While Braun can handle both positions, no one thinks he can play them even at an average level. Being comfortable defensively is important for a player. Braun would likely be uncomfortable, especially at first. Doing that for one season is one thing. Doing it for multiple seasons at his age is another.
On Second Thought
COVID-19 has changed the landscape of baseball in significant ways. Some of those changes have the new father of Carter James thinking about his future differently than just a few months ago. Some of the changes that are impacting his line of thinking are:
The Designated Hitter Coming to the National League
As we know the DH is coming to the National League for 2020. It is possible that 2021 will also include the universal DH. The preponderance of at-bats for Braun in 2020 are likely to come from the DH position. This will keep Braun fresher and healthier throughout the shortened season, and would do the same for a 162-game 2021 season. Braun reinforced this line of thinking in his interview with Adam McCalvy, “Being able to get a lot of my at-bats out of the DH spot, in theory should be something that will help keep me healthier and more productive.”
There are a number of players that have increased career longevity because they could still hit at a high level via the DH. Edwin Encarnacion and Nelson Cruz come immediately to mind. Braun has deteriorated since his days as an elite hitter, but one could see him thriving as a DH for 2020 and 2021. Maybe even beyond.
2020 is not going to be a normal season. That is stating the obvious. In fact there is a very real possibility that the entire scheduled 60-games will not be played because of the coronavirus. That would have to be a bitter pill to swallow if 2020 was to be the last season for Braun.
Think about playing the last season of a very good career with no fans in the seat and at best you only got to play 60 games. That is not the way most players would wish to leave the game. Having at least one more go-around with at-capacity crowds has to be something weighing on Braun’s thoughts.
Healthy Braun is Still a Good Braun
Ryan Braun has suffered a number of injuries over the past several years. Those injuries have impacted his ability to hit, whether it be the thumb, the back, or the calf. Yet when he feels good, Braun can carry the Brew Crew even in his mid-thirties. A shortened season should take much less of a toll, and it could potentially give a bit of a respite going into 2021.
Nonetheless giving Braun at-bats when healthy is a good thing for the Brewers. Braun is potentially one of those hitters that can age well if not playing in the field everyday. If he feels he can still perform, and if he can still play in Milwaukee...
Difficult to Walk Away
Braun probably enjoys playing baseball. It is something that he has spent almost his entire life playing. The negative psychological consequences around leaving something that you love and that you are really good at in your mid-thirties have to be significant. No matter how much he loves his family and wants to be with them, it would have to be difficult to leave the game. As long as he can still hit at a high level and play under the universal DH, I could see him playing for awhile.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs