Milwaukee Brewers

Ryan Braun playing for the contender no one expected

Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun stretches out at the on-deck circle in the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Cincinnati. The Brewers won 11-3. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Ryan Braun is contributing to another first-place baseball team. That it’s the Milwaukee Brewers and not, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers is a confluence of luck and timing. Had a vocal sect of Brewers fans gotten its wish, however, it wouldn’t be this way.

The day was Saturday, December 10, 2011. A tweet from USA Today’s Bob Nightengale hinted at a “bombshell” about to hit Major League Baseball. In the same tweet, Nightengale said that it was “hard to believe this news.” The bomb which was dropped on baseball that winter evening was targeted a few miles west of downtown Milwaukee.

Of course we’re referring to the leaked news of Ryan Braun having tested positive for what we would eventually learn was elevated levels of exogenous testosterone in his system. What a couple of days those became.

That first mention of ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” report was the singular moment for many fans where they wanted Braun off the Brewers. Many wanted him to be jettisoned far away from the wholesome, Midwestern, blue-collar city where he won Rookie of the Year honors and had just completed a division-winning, franchise win record-setting MVP season.

That potential suspension was overturned, but it’s difficult to change minds.

Other fans didn’t like the way Braun handled his February 2012 press conference (which Braun has repeatedly said he wishes he would have handled differently). Still others regarded the eventual suspension Braun served as the final straw. The cries of “Trade Braun!” have been louder at some times than others (people really enjoyed his 2012 season, for example, in which he finished second in the MVP voting of the notoriously anti-PED BBWAA), but it has always been — at the very least — a noisy undercurrent amid Brewer fan chatter.

But as the old adage goes: “If you listen to the fans, you’ll soon find yourself sitting with them.” In other words, the people in charge of running our favorite sports franchises need to listen to very different ebbs and flows of the baseball landscape. Ryan Joseph Braun, when healthy, can crush baseballs at a prodigious rate. That’s valuable to the on-field product of a franchise trying to win the World Series.

Fast-forward to the trade deadline during the 2016 season. The Brewers were no longer trying to win. They were solidly committed to a rebuild, one that was coming along swimmingly by most accounts, but with a finish line still waiting on the horizon.

Braun was the last remnant of the 2011 NLCS team. Many players had been traded; some left in free agency. A number of players had both come and gone since the beginning of 2012. It was Braun, a favorite of principal owner Mark Attanasio, who remained.

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 26: Milwaukee Brewers Left field Ryan Braun (8) hits the ball during a game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cincinnati Reds on April 26, 2017 at Miller Park in Milwaukee, WI. (Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire)

Rumors were flying in the run-up to the August 1 trading deadline that long-bruised fans might get their wish after all this time: The Milwaukee Brewers’ front office would listen to offers for Ryan Braun. Those offers almost ended up in a deal.

No, not the deal to the Atlanta Braves which Braun quickly exercised his limited no-trade clause to negate, but a real and nearly executed trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team to which Braun couldn’t block a deal. It didn’t happen, and we can save the time of going into the particulars, but that the Brewers would even consider a move raised some eyebrows.

It was arguable that the move was sensible. If the Brewers could get even more high-end prospect talent in the right deal, and potentially clear an outfield spot for their suddenly overflowing position of depth in the minors while eliminating nearly all of their committed payroll, some people were all for it even if they weren’t mad at Braun for December 2011, February 2012, or May 2013.

Here the Brewers sit instead, with a rejuvenated-if-not-yet-fully-realized team constructed under the watchful eye of David Stearns. This team won 50 games before the 2017 All-Star break, good for first place in the National League’s Central Division by a cool 5.5 games over both the St. Louis Cardinals and the defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs… all with Ryan Braun playing in merely 40 of those 91 games due to, ironically, a significant and lingering calf strain.

That last sentence may seem like it would fit into a counterpoint article to this one — where the thesis is that Braun is expendable — but make no mistake about it: Braun’s presence on this Brewer team and in this clubhouse has plenty to do with its success.

Though his batting average, a poorly used statistic in the first place, hasn’t yet rounded into form, Braun’s on-base and slugging percentages are in line with past successful seasons. He is on pace for reduced stats, but that’s to be expected when dealing with injury. When Braun is in this potent lineup, batting third between major left-handed offseason imports Eric Thames and Travis Shaw, he not only provides his own offensive firepower but lengthens a powerful batting order even more than when Domingo Santana or Jesús Aguilar or Hernán Pérez have to fill in. Braun is still a viable threat to win a game by himself — pitchers still have immense respect for the same.

The bottom line is that you can try so many different permutations of how the baseball landscape could look had any number of different things happened along the way. What if Braun had been traded last August? Would the team be succeeding with, conceivably, another rookie cutting his teeth instead of the more veteran constitution which has played left field this season? Would the Dodgers have called up Cody Bellinger when they did if they had Braun in left field instead? This paragraph could go on for another 500 words, so I digress.

Trades happen. They can affect so much and change expectations and results when they occur. However, one decision to not make one trade can create significant ripples as well.

The Milwaukee Brewers did not trade Ryan Braun at any point along the way where fans, outsiders, insiders, reporters, and even at one time the front office itself thought it might make sense. How far that decision and all the other upcoming decisions to modify the composition of the 25-man roster over the rest of the trading season remains to be seen, but today they’re better for not acting then.


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