It should come as no surprise to any of the readers of this site that I am a big fan of Ryan Braun. In fact, prior to the urine sample heard ‘round the world, I was ready to anoint Braun my top overall fantasy pick for 2012.
Since taking the league by storm in 2007, Braun has done nothing but put up at least borderline first-round value every season of his career. If I owned Matt Kemp and was asked whether I would sign for Braun’s career-average production from Kemp in 2012, I’d whip out my Mont Blanc and site.
However, it’s been a busy offseason for Mr. Braun, and additional news has impacted the landscape of potential No. 1 options. Miguel Cabrera is looking down the barrel of third base-eligibility, and Albert Pujols has changed teams. The Kemp supports are still out in force, as well.
As of now, Miggy is my top overall player. As far as Braun, I think it’s hard to make a case for him being anything less than the fourth overall ranked player. I can see a case for Pujols and Kemp in addition to Cabrera, but after that, I run out of legitimate contenders.
Since there are several issues swirling around Braun right now, I’d like to offer my takes on which factors don’t worry me and which do.
Am I worried that Braun was a cheater and that all his majestic baseball powers came from performance-enhancing drugs, so now all of a sudden he won’t be awesome any more because he’ll have to stop taking them?
No. First of all, and I’m going to risk derailing my article and being labeled an apologist here, his legal team’s choice to advance a breech of protocol defense does not even preclude the possibility that he also could have been innocent outright. When you are facing charges in a court of sorts, you mount the defense that is most likely to win, not the one that if successful will make you look the best in the eyes of public.
Talk from Braun’s camp all along was that the substance was banned but not performance enhancing. Even if that were true—like, say, if the prevailing rumor were true—it’s likely he’d still have to serve the suspension. Braun’s obligation is to be on the field for the team that pays him millions of dollars to win them ballgames. So, if he convinced the public he didn’t cheat but just violated the policy (and, let’s be real, that’s an essentially impossible border to straddle in public opinion), it wouldn’t have done him or the Brewers any good anyway.
All that said, it doesn’t matter to me whether he was “using something” and now he won’t be. I have to see him fail before I think of him as anything but one of the very few best players in the sport. You don’t become a perennial MVP candidate by taking a pill.
This is where the over-the-top self-righteousness of the pubic can create value for you in a draft. Don’t buy into arguments driven by the morality police. Until it is proven otherwise—on the field—Braun is an absolutely fantastic baseball player and one of the most valuable fantasy commodities available.
Am I worried about the loss Prince Fielder as his “protection?”
No. Last year, Braun was intentionally walked two times while Fielder was awarded a league-leading 32 intentional passes. Some say Braun won’t be pitched to as much, and he won’t have a stud to drive him in so often. I don’t buy the idea that this will affect Braun’s overall value. I feel this way for several reasons.
Even if Braun does get a significantly higher amount of IBBs, so what? Did the 32 IBBs hurt Fielder’s value much last season? Not particularly, as he still scored 95 runs with Casey McGehee posting .617 OPS in 116 games out of the fifth spot in the order. In terms of enticing pitchers to issue a free pass, Aramis Ramirez will provide greater protection than McGehee provided for Fielder last season.
Also, keep in mind that players who post gaudy IBB totals often seem to be those known to have good plate discipline in the first place, like Fielder. This makes sense because the risk of “pitching around” a well-disciplined and highly dangerous hitter is great and the reward is low, as they are less likely to swing at your non-strike offerings anyway, and a mistake could very costly. (I’ve advanced this theory in regard to Barry Bonds many times in the past.) Braun does not fall into this camp, so while the context may call for a ton of IBBs, his makeup as a batter may not.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s even grant the notion that Braun is given, say, 20 more intentional passes. I’m not sure how that really hurts his value. Fielder managed to score 95 runs with an inept hitter behind him largely because his gaudy walk total, bolstered by a healthy dose of intentional walks, pushed his on-base percentage comfortably above .400. In the previous three seasons, Fielder has had two great seasons and one simply good one; Braun broke 100 runs scored each time.
But, I’m not finished. Twenty more free passes would also result in 20 more chances for Braun to steal bases, and the more times he reaches base, the more chances he has to score runs. Substituting 20 chances to drive in runs for 20 guaranteed times reaching first base could very well actually boost a player like Braun’s value.
Lineup protection is largely a myth in the first place, and this is a non-issue at worst and a blessing in disguise at best.
Finally, the other top overall candidate most similar to Braun is Kemp. Isn’t Kemp’s “protection” even weaker than Braun’s expected “protection?” Wasn’t it just as weak last year? Did it matter? Lineup protection issues can’t be considered any greater detriment to Braun than they are to Kemp.
So, what are you worried about?
The public and a potential media circus. It will be critical for Braun to get off to good start, though if he gets off to too good of a start, that could precipitate its own set of woes. What Braun needs to avoid is doing anything, performance-wise, to feed the write-by-numbers palaver of either “player newly off juice now stinks” or “cheater gets away with crime and taunts league by dominating.”
Over time, Braun will revert to his career norms if left alone, but the public scrutiny of a media circus can grate on a player and move toward becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Braun just has to go out and be Braun, but if he doesn’t, he will invite the storylines and coverage that can draw a season out to feel like an eternity, and over time that begins to affect one’s play.
I think Braun will be fine and will put together a standard, awesome Ryan Braun campaign. What I fear most when it comes to reasons why that might not happen have nothing to do with Ryan Braun.