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Braun faces long road ahead
Ryan Braun’s breakthrough season has gone bust.
He was such a critical part of the Milwaukee Brewers winning their first division title in 30 years that he was selected the National League Most Valuable Player for 2011. But Braun won’t be around on Sunday for the team's annual winter gathering with fans.
This should have been his moment of personal celebration, a chance to mingle with fans who worship him, and whom he has earned a reputation for enjoying interaction with over his five years in the big leagues.
But it won’t be what it should be.
Early in December, it was disclosed that Braun faces a 50-game suspension because a test he underwent at the outset of baseball’s playoffs was positive for a banned substance. He's in the midst of an appeal.
So, Braun finds himself in the middle of an offseason controversy, which mutes his offseason celebration. And now he’s bracing for a regular season in 2012 in which he no longer will have the help of Prince Fielder in the middle of the Brewers’ lineup.
Fielder followed the free-agent path to Detroit, leaving Braun without what has been a menacing security blanket in the Brewers lineup.
Once Braun is able to return to the field in 2012 — whether it’s in early April or late May — playing the game will have a new challenge for him because Fielder won’t be around to help him terrorize opposing pitchers.
Time will tell.
What history has shown is that Fielder has been in the lineup in 721 of the 729 big-league games that Braun has played, including Fielder hitting cleanup in virtually each of the 650 games in which Braun has hit third.
They have been as productive a right-left punch as any team in baseball has employed in recent years, and as good as Braun is, it won’t be the same without his left-handed-hitting partner.
The Brewers are projecting that Mat Gamel, a left-handed hitter, will take over for Fielder at first base, with right-fielder Corey Hart — a first baseman when he was drafted — set to provide protection at the position.
More important, though, will be who winds up hitting fourth, providing that middle of the lineup impact bat, taking pressure off Braun. The Brewers made a deal this offseason to bring in free agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez — shelling out $36 million over three years — but he’s more a knave than a prince.
Braun’s patience will be tested. Teams won’t let him beat them.
He will be a marked man in a Brewers lineup that doesn’t have another impact bat.
Braun, however, has the offensive ability to welcome the challenge.
And his answers at the plate will go a long way in quieting the off-field grumbling that will linger from this winter of discontent following the revelation of the positive test.
Braun has pleaded innocent. His appeal was heard by a three-man panel in New York last week. A decision could come down anytime in the next three weeks. The odds are against him.
No player has successfully challenged a violation of baseball’s drug-testing program, which shows no leniency even for medical reasons if the player’s team was not alerted of the substance usage in advance, and the Brewers were caught totally off guard.
He did show up in New York last weekend for the Baseball Writers Association of America banquet, where he was presented his MVP trophy and was impressive in how he handled his acceptance speech, but that’s pretty much the extent of his offseason activity.
In organizing the event in Milwaukee this week, the decision was made that Braun would be better off staying home in Malibu, Calif. Braun won’t be staying on the west coast because of the weather, but because “this is too sensitive of a time in the confidential process for him to attend,” Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said in a prepared statement.
What’s more, the sensitivity isn’t going to go away, even if he is absolved and wins his appeal.
Americans are supposed to be forgiving, but that’s not always the case.
Braun has been branded, whether he is innocent or guilty. His name was sullied when the positive drug test was leaked out ahead of schedule — the Brewers didn’t even know about it.
Don’t think there will be a hangover? Ask Jeff Bagwell. He’s never tested positive, and was never involved in allegations of PED use. He was a prodigious home run hitter who bulked up during his playing career, and that, in itself, has been enough for some Hall of Fame voters to ignore Bagwell’s candidacy because they think he could have used PEDs.
Braun’s benefit is that while he already has been a four-time All-Star in five big-league seasons, he’s only 28, and will have a decade or more of playing time to try and ease the suspicions of PED usage that taint his on-field accomplishments.
But how good will he be without the Fielder’s power in the lineup with him?