Starter: Ryan Braun
Backup: Logan Schafer
AAA Depth: Caleb Gindl
The future: Victor Roache, Mitch Haniger
So much has been written, and will continue to be written, about Ryan Braun that it sometimes seems like there really isn’t much new to say. Obviously he’s going to be the center of attention on this team, especially in the early games in 2014. Fans of opposing teams will surely give him a hard time, even if it means forgetting about the sordid pasts of some players they once rooted for. Some players on opposing teams will surely choose to make an issue of Braun’s past, though whether that takes the form of whispered comments or pitches to the ribs remains to be seen.
Once you get past all of the “hot takes” from national scribes looking to outdo each other or talk radio yakkers, there are some pretty interesting questions to be asked about Braun’s performance going forward. What can Brewers fans expect from Braun in 2014? When trying to predict the future, it’s often helpful to look back at the past.
|162 Game Avg.||162||705||36||22||6||57||128||.312||.374||.564||.938||146||358|
Ryan Braun emerged in 2007 as a truly elite power hitter, as is evidence by the fact that he led the league in slugging. He took a noticeable step back in 2008, stepped forward somewhat in 2009 before falling back to ’08 levels. Then, in 2011, he went from being a very good player to being one of the very best players in all of Major League Baseball. After winning the MVP award, testing positive for PED’s and then beating the positive test on a chain of custody challenge, he came back and got even better in some respects the next year. 2013 saw his numbers fall back towards his 2008-2010 run of simply being very good, but not elite.
Some people will undoubtedly look at these numbers and claim they prove that MVP-Braun was a “PED creation.” He tested positive in 2011 in the midst of a season that saw his production leap forward. After beating the positive, Braun was emboldened and continued to use through 2012, until the Biogenesis scandal came along and scared him into no longer using in 2013, which explains why his numbers dropped off. It’s simple, convenient and allows one to simply dismiss Braun’s best seasons as “artificial.”
As satisfying as that might be for those that want to dismiss Braun out of hand, there are some important points to note. First off, those MVP-caliber years happened to come in his age 27 and 28 seasons, a time when hitters often peak. Below is the standard hitter aging curve, from baseball-ratings.net:
Obviously, not every player is going to fit perfectly within an overall framework like this. Actual player aging curves are going to feature some up and down. Still, the point is that no one should look at a player who does well from ages 23-26 only to explode in their age 27 and 28 seasons as being surely an artificial creation. If Braun falls off now, it will be assumed he was only good in 2011 and 2012 because of whatever it was he was taking. The reality is that players tend to start declining around his current age, it’s just a question of how much and how fast.
So just what does the future hold for Mr. Braun? It’s hard to say for sure. He’s killed the ball early this spring, but spring training numbers just don’t mean a whole lot, especially early on when pitchers aren’t even throwing their full arsenal. It’s better that he’s hitting than if he weren’t, but it honestly doesn’t prove much other than he’s physically healthy right now.
That brings us to not just the question of how well his thumb injury has healed, but also if Braun will be able to stay off the DL in the future. If you believe what explanation Braun has given to this point for his positive test, he turned to “products” in 2011 to deal with a “nagging injury.” Presumably he won’t be turning to products in the future, and if they were actually helping him play through things then we could see his production drop some when dealing with injuries going forward.
Honestly, it’s going to be hard to be surprised by Braun’s production in 2014. He’s shown the ability to be anywhere between a 3.9 and a 7.6 fWAR player in his five full, healthy seasons in the majors. Anything in that range, and perhaps even a bit above and below that shouldn’t really shock us, no matter what the narrative makers want to say.
Braun will also be making the switch to right in 2014, which will present its own unique challenges to overcome. He surely has the raw arm strength to play the position, but will need to continue to improve the accuracy and consistency of his throws. He was able to improve over time after switching from third to left in 2008, so while there will probably be growing pains, it’s hard to imagine him being a disaster in right.
Backing up Braun, at least to start the season, will probably be Logan Schafer. He’s really more of a centerfielder, though. If Braun does end up on the disabled list, it’s more likely that the team will turn to Caleb Gindl. Gindl will probably be sent to AAA to open the year but has the pop one normally associates with corner outfielders.
Further down in the minors, the Brewers’ “right fielder of the future” is quite possibly one of two 2012 top 50 picks: Mitch Haniger or Victor Roache. Haniger opened the year in Wisconsin, but was quickly promoted to Brevard County, where his home run power decreased but he still showed a solid batting eye and an ability to hit the ball to the gaps. How he handles the jump to AA in 2014 should tell us quite a bit about his eventual ceiling. Roache got off to a slow start coming off a bad wrist injury that caused him to miss most of 2012, but ended up mashing 22 homers in under 500 trips to the plate. If he can smooth out his swing and make more consistent contact, he has massive raw power and could be a true “impact” bat down the line.
Best Case Scenario:
Braun’s hot spring carries over into a monster, MVP-caliber season. He stays healthy, makes the switch to right with little difficulty and reestablishes his power as a box office draw for owner Mark Attanasio. Down in the minors, Roache and Haniger both hit well enough to prompt mid-year promotions.
Worst Case Scenario:
There are a couple of different “nightmare” scenarios for Braun. The possibility of major injury hangs over every player, but it looms a bit larger for those on the wrong side of 30. There is also the spectre of a second failed test or non-analytic positive, that would probably make it really hard for him to stay in Milwaukee and for the Brewers to keep him. Finally, Braun could also just go through a “slump” year, where he never is really able to get on track with the bat and the pressure builds until it consumes him. Haniger’s power disappears and Roache’s numbers are buried under a pile of swings and misses.
Braun comes out and puts up a season somewhere in the middle of his best and worst years. Something like 2009, perhaps. He misses some time, but avoids major injury and scandal. Roache and Haniger continue on about how they’ve been going.
Braun PECOTA: .303/.371/.522
Braun ZiPS: .300/.367/.540
Schafer PECOTA: .249/.305/.375
Schafer ZiPS: .243/.300/.348
So far in the series:
3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position
3/11: Curt previewed first base
3/12: Jonathan previewed second base
3/13: Steve previewed third base
3/14: Vineet previewed short stop
3/17: Adam previewed left field
3/18: Alex previewed center field