2013 was not fun. Not for Ryan Braun nor the Brewers as a whole. The 2011 National League MVP only appeared in 61 games due to injury and a 60-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use and became public enemy number one to Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan for reasons that are unknown and probably don’t make any sense, either. Without their star outfielder and mired by injuries to a handful of other important players, the Brewers struggled mightily and finished fourth in the National League Central at 74-88.
Moving forward, it would be difficult to foresee the Brewers doing any worse in 2014. Our own Ryan Topp put it very well, however, in saying that the Brewers are “stuck somewhere between contending and rebuilding”. The organization hasn’t gone out and chased any big name free agents (or any free agents at all, for that matter) but, at the same time, hasn’t shipped away of their big names aside from Norichika Aoki to stock up on prospects. While the farm system isn’t depleted, it lacks the star power that it was known for in the early 2000s. It’s filled with Quad-A or “fringe” prospects–guys that will get their chance at the major league level but are limited in upside.
While those players will impact the Brewers level of contention two or three years from now, in 2014 the team is relying on a mix of the handful of players still remaining from the 2011 division champion squad, veterans such as Kyle Lohse and Aramis Ramirez, and the organization’s prospects that have surfaced over the past two seasons. It’s not completely out of imagination to see the Brewers competing in 2014, but, as Ron Roenicke even addressed, just about everything would have to go to right.
Braun has always been a shoe-in for a .300/.360/.500, 30 homer season. He’s one of the best all-around hitters and players in baseball, but in 2014, he will be returning from an aggravating thumb injury that plagued him prior to his 60-game suspension. Public opinion surrounding Milwaukee’s most beloved player since Robin Yount plummeted and he’s sure to receive mixed reactions from fans even in his home ballpark. Questions surrounding Braun as he returns to the field involve both his physical and mental state after a tumultuous, forgettable 2013.
If Braun’s body has healed and he returns with a focused mentality, there is no reason to expect anything different from him this season. His play, arguably more so than any other player on the roster, will go a long way in determining whether the Brewers are competitors this upcoming season. Fan reaction is largely uncontrollable, something that can only negatively influence on-field performance, and this seems to be a notion that Braun understands. As far as what he can control in regards to his PED situation, Braun has issued a written apology that answered the questions surrounding what and when he took illegal substances and since addressed Milwaukee media regarding the situation. He has apologized for his use of a lozenge and cream containing a banned substance during the latter portion of the Brewers 2011 run to the postseason and made amends with Dino Laurenzi, Jr., the urine sample collector whose mishandling of the sample led to all the drama.
If the Brewers expect to have any chance at competing, Braun, first and foremost, has to produce at a high level (see what I did there?) and avoid key injuries that sidelined him last season. If the third slot in the batting order has a sOPS+ of 99 and just 19 homers as it did last season, the performance of the back end of the rotation and youngsters like Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett won’t even matter come October.