Does Ryan Braun's Future with the Brewers Lie at First Base?
Over the weekend I had the opportunity to appear on the Baseball PhD Podcast with Edward Kasputis to talk about the Milwaukee Brewers and their rebuilding process (my appearance starts around the 40:00 mark), and per usual the conversation quickly turned to Ryan Braun. Kasputis suggested that Braun’s productive years may be largely over by the time the Brewers are ready to win again.
“Mr. Braun is getting older and older, he’ll be in the Pujols thing where he was a great player but he’s 72% of his former self,” Kasputis said.
Braun’s decline is likely something we’ll have to come to terms with in the coming years, but right now it’s difficult to imagine it: He’s having a resurgent season at the plate, easily his best since leading the NL in home runs and finishing second in the MVP balloting in 2012, and he doesn’t look like a guy that’s wrapping up the productive years of his MLB career.
For a variety of reasons I see and hear a lot of comparisons between Braun and Robin Yount, which are largely apples-to-oranges discussions. Braun and Yount went about accumulating value in entirely different ways, with a large portion of Yount’s contributions coming from his work at premium defensive positions. If we’re going to compare Braun to an all-time Brewers great, I think Paul Molitor is a more worthwhile comp and provides an interesting template for what the next few years might look like.
Molitor got a slightly earlier start to his MLB career, debuting two years younger than Braun, and hit for a higher average while producing less power. Like Braun, however, his primary offensive value came at the plate and was tied to his consistency. Also like Braun, Molitor had some significant stretches in the prime of his career where he struggled to stay on the field.
Between 1984-87, Molitor’s age 27-30 seasons, he missed 272 games due to various injuries. For comparison purposes, over the last four seasons (including his extended suspension in 2013) Braun has missed 174 games. Molitor’s difficulty staying healthy continued into 1990, where he missed 59 more games.
Instead of declining in his mid-30s, however, Molitor saw his productivity surge. He led the American League in plate appearances, runs, hits and triples in 1991 at age 34, when he played in 158 games for just the second time in his career. All told, Molitor collected 1568 MLB hits, made four All Star appearances and won two Silver Slugger Awards after his age 33 season. If Braun were to have that kind of success over the next nine seasons he’d pass 3000 career hits, and he’d also play five seasons past the last guaranteed year in his current contract. Those projections are probably a bit optimistic, but they do show some precedent for Braun remaining productive well past his prime years.
There’s an elephant in the room in this conversation, though, and it’s Braun’s defensive position. The Brewers (and later the Blue Jays and Twins) kept Molitor healthy and productive by making him a near-full time designated hitter. Molitor played the last games of his career at second and third base in 1990 and from 1991-98 he played just 160 games in the field, all at first base.
The prospect of a position shift for Braun has been brought up before and largely dismissed, but we might see it again this winter alongside the perpetual conversations surrounding a possible Braun trade. Under the National League’s current rules the Brewers don’t have the option of making Braun a full-time DH, but a move down the defensive spectrum to first base could help the Brewers in three ways:
1. Clearing up a positional log jam: Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton and Kirk Nieuwenhuis are all potentially back for 2017 and four of the top eight prospects in the Brewers organization are all outfielders. Two of those prospects are Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips, who are likely candidates to reach the majors in the next 12 months. Moving Braun to first base on a full or part-time basis might make room for more of these guys to stick around and show what they can do.
2. Answering a long-term question mark at first base: As I mentioned last week, beyond Chris Carter the Brewers do not have many viable internal candidates to play first base at any level of the organization. While the list of the organization’s top prospects is loaded with centerfielders and middle infielders, someone is going to have to man this position going forward.
3. Limiting strain on Braun’s various injuries: First base isn’t easy, but it does reflect an opportunity to reduce some of the wear and tear Braun currently experiences in left field. Moving over there might raise Braun’s projections from 130-140 games per season going forward to something closer to 140-150, and it could mean he’s experiencing less general soreness when he’s in the lineup.
Of course, all of this would require buy-in from Braun, who may very well have no interest in a move back into the infield following his rookie season at third base. It’s a conversation worth having at some point, though, because over the long term it could be the best thing for Braun and this team.