SportsPulse: This baseball season will be a downright sprint and certifiably crazy. Mackenzie Salmon breaks down everything you need to know about the 2020 season with numbers.
MILWAUKEE — Had 2020 proceeded as expected, Ryan Braun would have been approaching the second half of what very well could have been his final major-league season.
But, just as it has with seemingly everything else in the world since March, COVID-19 and the ensuing three-month shutdown of baseball has affected the retirement plans the 36-year-old had first publicly mentioned in January.
“I would say at this point, I’m more likely to play another year than I think I would have been,” Braun told reporters on Saturday afternoon, after taking part in the in the Milwaukee Brewers’ initial workout of what’s been dubbed “Summer Camp 2020.”
Why the change of heart?
“To start with, we’ll only play 60 games instead of 162 games, so obviously at this age and where I’m at in my career, it’s very appealing to me to have the option to DH for a decent percentage of my at-bats,” he said. “And this season will be an experience like we’ve never experienced before.
“So at this point, I feel like it’s more likely that I play another year than I anticipated a few months back.”
Back in February and March, Braun was being projected as the fourth outfielder as well as a right-handed-hitting option at first base in the wake of the offseason free-agent signing of Avisaíl García, who was installed as the primary rightfielder, and the move of Christian Yelich from right to left.
Braun played in 144 games in 2019 – most since his National League MVP runner-up year of 2012 – and was again productive with a .285 batting average, 22 home runs and 75 RBI with an OPS of .849, so a slightly reduced role figured to fit him well as long as he was amenable to it.
Then the pandemic hit, and with the drastic changes that come along with baseball’s restart for this year and likely next will be the universal designated hitter – a job that would seem to fit Braun perfectly (as he noted) by keeping him fresher and helping him to potentially avoid some of the nagging injuries he’s dealt with in the past.
Braun is entering the final year of the five-year, $105 million extension he signed with the Brewers back in April 2011, and it includes a $15 million mutual option for 2021 with a $4 million buyout.
It’s highly unlikely the Brewers would exercise their half of that option at this point.
But, if both parties were agreeable to Braun returning at a more club-friendly price, the potential for one final season with the team that drafted him fifth overall out of the University of Miami in 2005 would be there assuming he remains healthy and productive.
“My focus for now is just on this year, trying to prepare for this season,” Braun said when asked about that possibility. “For me personally, playing a smaller number of games is something that’s beneficial. I think I’ve been able to be pretty good the last few Septembers because when I know it’s a smaller sample size we’re working with I can just focus on sprinting to the finish line.
“I love everything about the city, this organization and I’m incredibly close with the Attanasios, so the goal certainly would be, if I play another year, to play here.”
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Braun’s family grew by one May 31 when he and his wife, Larisa, welcomed the couple’s third child, son Carter James.
While mother and baby are both doing well, the proposition of playing in the midst of a pandemic is frightening enough that the game’s best all-around player, the Angels’ Mike Trout, is reportedly considering opting out of playing this season with his wife eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child.
Another big-name player, Dodgers pitcher David Price, announced Saturday he’s opting out of the season as well.
Braun acknowledged the risk is a real one – the Braves announced Saturday all-star first baseman Freddie Freeman tested positive for COVID-19 – and that even the game’s best players aren’t off-limits from the virus, but that the top-notch medical care and detail-oriented protocol that is in place for all teams has been enough to allay his fears.
“First and foremost, I love this game,” Braun said. “I love having an opportunity to compete. I think there’s a level of accountability that I feel toward my teammates. Also, the fact that obviously a lot closer to the end of my career than the beginning of my career so if this was to be my last year, I certainly wouldn’t want to have to sit out.
“The more I learned about the health and safety protocols that were in place, the more comfortable I felt with everything. But again, I’m continuing to assess on a day-to-day basis and Larisa and I continue to have conversations about what this looks like, whether it’s safe for me to be here, whether it would be safe for them to join me here.
“And I think a lot of players are in that same situation in trying to assess it on a day-to-day basis and see what makes the most sense for them.”
Braun said he’s been keeping a low profile since arriving back in Milwaukee, hanging out mostly with Yelich and another friend, and that he feels good physically.
Getting to that first game still healthy and refreshed while also ready to face top-notch pitching with only three weeks of prep time will be the next challenge. And doing it in empty ballparks will just add to what’s already been a surreal experience for everyone involved.
“It’ll be drastically different,” Braun said. “None of us knows what to expect and none of us have been through anything like this before, so we’ll have to create our own energy. I think that we’ll be depending on the public-address announcer and whoever’s doing the music on a daily basis to create some energy for us as well. But it’ll be a lot different.
“Obviously we love having fans here, we love the home-field advantage that they help create for us. The atmosphere and environment for big games here is electric and it’s as loud as it is anywhere in baseball. So, we’ll certainly miss that.
“I don’t know whether at some point in the season some small amount of fans will be let into stadiums or not. We would love for that to be the case, but ultimately we will abide by whatever they suggest we do. But it’ll be significantly different than we’re used to.”