A hot topic ever since his one-man assault on Kyle Kendrick and the boo-birds of Philadelphia just over a week ago, what to expect from Ryan Braun in 2014 is a true quandary for the fantasy baseball community, and one which shows no signs of being answered soon. The volatile combination of sensational past performance, a lingering injury, and his return from a 65-game PED suspension that ended his 2013 have all contributed to make the 30-year-old Braun one of the most intriguing names out there in fantasy circles this year – and an absolutely infuriating player to own (I should know – more on that later). Consider this then, frustrated owners, your Braun-primer, recapping what there is to know about Braun’s current situation, and (hopefully) helping in answering that nagging question; just what the heck do you do with Ryan Braun?!
Let’s start with some history. Pre-2013 – whether artificially aided or not – Braun was one of the most dependable first-round selections around, averaging a .312-34-109-22-105 line in his first full five seasons in the majors (2008-12), twice securing a top-3 finish on ESPN’s Player Rater. Furthermore, he played 150 games or more in every one of those five seasons – a necessary component to being a true fantasy stud.
2013 however, drastically altered the perception of Braun (in more ways than one); a thumb injury landed him on the DL for the first time in his career, and would eventually cost him 38 of the first 97 games of the Brewers’ season. Then came the unexpected hammer blow to owners everywhere – the season-ending suspension which ensured the righty slugger a final finish of 369th overall on the aforementioned Player Rater (89th among outfielders). Typically drafted third overall behind only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, there was perhaps no bigger bust than Braun (though the injury-plagued Matt Kemp and his 388th place Player Rater finish might have run him close).
The concerns over his thumb (and the presumably lost effect of the PEDs – a factor I personally never bought into*) led to his stock dropping over the winter, with many critics doubting his previously unparalleled combination of hit-for-average, hit-for-power and base-stealing ability to still be fully present. A solid spring (he launched three home runs and had a .806 slugging percentage in 16 Cactus League games), eased doubt though, the Hebrew Hammer eventually securing an average draft position of 15.3 – his ADP only .1 behind 5th-ranked outfielder Adam Jones, and considerably higher than the previously mentioned Kemp (72.0).
Which brings us to the present. Milwaukee’s no.3 hitter is currently rocking a .269-3-10-2-9 line, good for a 6.43 value and 25th place ranking on the early Player Rater; no great shakes then, the consensus second-rounder performing slightly below expected, but superficially at least (and especially when considering how young the season is – Alexei Ramirez, Dee Gordon, and Charlie Blackmon are ranked in the top 5 two weeks in) far from a disaster. The real trouble though – and the cause of the Braun dilemma – comes when you look beyond the simple 5×5 stats.
According to MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy, the same thumb injury that so affected his pre-suspension playing time last year (numbness in the thumb that affects his grip and in turn leads to blisters), is back. The different tactics employed by Braun and the Brewers’ medical staff (per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, padding on the bat or in his batting glove), haven’t apparently worked; his trouble not just swinging the bat effectively, but throwing the ball without issue had already kept him out of one game before it was earlier announced he would be rested for today’s tilt against the Cardinals. Throw in his slow start to0 – aside from that Philadelphia game, the Milwaukee man’s fantasy line would be just .234-0-3-2-6 – and there are very legitimate reasons for Braun owners to be worried about their investment.
Now if it weren’t for the thumb, I wouldn’t be so worried about Braun’s slow start – we’re two weeks in remember, and with a potent Milwaukee offense around him (Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy have been particularly great so far) the counting stats would almost certainly come around. But the lingering effect of that ailment, aside from likely cutting into his offensive output, will almost certainly also effect the newly-converted left fielder’s playing time – much like in 2013 – and thus dent his overall production. What with his problem sounding like a classic sort of daily-maintenance and eventual surgery injury too, the occasional off days, designated-hitter games, and likely DL stint will make Braun a fantasy nightmare for those in weekly leagues, and someone whose everyday availability will require constant surveillance in daily leagues.
It’s unclear then, whether Braun is worth the hassle. On the one hand, he might find a solid management option, play most-everyday, and provide tremendous statistical worth. More likely, at least in my opinion – I traded Braun in one of my leagues this week – he’ll be in and out of the lineup, and provide merely above-average value on a per-game basis. That’s not bad by any means, but not what you paid for, and a real pain in the proverbial. I would suggest then, that if there’s any residual buzz in your league left to be exploited from that Philly outing, you swing him – but for no less than 70 cents on the dollar.
80% of Braun is still valuable after all, no matter how frustrating he is. But if you still can, let someone else ponder that annoying fantasy thought every morning: ‘I wonder what I’ll get out of Ryan Braun today…’
*I’m no doctor, but I doubt the PEDs had much actual impact on his on-field performance, ie. I find it hard to believe Braun is actually a 15 HR guy who was merely masquerading as a power hitter. More likely, the drugs allowed him to recover quicker from the niggling injuries he naturally picked up over the long 162 game season, and possibly allowed him to push through a couple of games when he would have otherwise been unable to play. Again though, I’m no doctor – just a humble English literature student.