It’s no secret that Milwaukee Brewers’ left fielder Ryan Braun is under the microscope this season, as the 2011 National League MVP winner returns from an offseason marked by steroid allegations and the eventual lifting of his 50-game suspension, as an arbitration panel ruled that MLB’s testing process in this case violated established protocol. What is a secret is how Braun is going to handle the pressure, and I would not be optimistic.
Let’s start with the two most important points. Because he was the National League MVP a year ago, the odds favor a modest decline just on the basis that not too many players have that kind of season two years in a row. One can believe Ryan Braun is great, that will have more MVP-type seasons, even that he’ll make the Hall of Fame, and still be convinced that it’s going to be tough to put together that caliber season again. The second point would be that without departed free agent first baseman Prince Fielder hitting behind him, Braun is not going to see quality pitches to hit. He and manager Ron Roenicke will have to weigh whether it makes more sense to just take increased walks, or if the needs of the time require Braun to take some chances outside the strike zone. Whatever they decide, it wasn’t a question that had to be faced a year ago.
We haven’t even touched on anything related to the offseason. I have doubts that Braun has the kind of personality that will handle the heat that opposing fans will put on him. Please note that this is not the same type of pressure he faced in last year’s playoff drive or in the postseason series against Arizona and St. Louis, where he excelled. That was strictly baseball pressure. Now a player, who by all accounts is open and warm to fans from everywhere is a lightning rod and loathed by at least half (and that’s being generous) of the broader baseball fan base, who believe he got off a technicality, not because he was truly innocent.
The Milwaukee fan base certainly hasn’t prepared Braun for what’s ahead of him. I write this from thirty miles outside the city and I grew up in this area, so believe me when I say these are not fans that are ruthless towards their players. When New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez faced steroid allegations and booing it was another day at the office—even the home office. For Braun, it’s a whole new ballgame.
And let’s add one more thing—presuming Braun does have a slip in production, there’s not going to be a lot of wonderment as to why, especially with the fans who believe him to be guilty. For all these reason I think the Brewer leftfielder has a tough row to hoe in 2012.
As we’ve done in our other spring positional reports (see below for links), let’s take a brief run through the NL Central and check out the left field spot. ..
St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday—if I’m right about Braun, this is the new sheriff in town at the position in the NL Central. In fact he might be, even if I’m not. Even if Holliday doesn’t have a banner year, his track record shows you’ll get a .380 OBP and .500 slugging as a minimum baseline.
Cincinnati Reds: Ryan Ludwick—He hasn’t produced since 2008 in St. Louis. The Reds are hoping getting him out of San Diego will revive his bat.
Chicago Cubs: Alfonso Soriano—Yes, he’ll have some impressive power surges that will last a week, maybe two if he’s really scorching. Other than that, he’s a liability, especially on the payroll.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Alex Presley—An interesting prospect, but with Nate McLouth challenging for time in both left and right field, there’s not much room for error.
Houston Astros: J.D. Martinez—The kid did well in limited time last year and it’s a realistic goal for him to be third-best in the NL Central at this spot during his first full big-league campaign.