MILWAUKEE — While many big name American baseball players decided against the opportunity to represent their country at the World Baseball Classic, Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun didn’t have to think twice.
In fact, it was a no-brainer. If he was healthy, Braun was going to don the red, white and blue.
“First and foremost, it’s an honor,” Braun said. “It’s a tremendous honor to have an opportunity to represent your country. You don’t know how many opportunities you are going to have to do that. This tournament only happens once every four years and four years from now who knows — for all of us — what our health situation would be, where we’ll be in the game and even have an opportunity to be invited.”
Like all players participating in the World Baseball Classic, Braun’s offseason routine was altered due to the tournament starting in early March. Unlike the relaxed feel of spring training games, the WBC puts players in intense competition a month earlier than usual.
In a normal year, Braun wouldn’t start his hitting until sometime in January, but this season he was long tossing in November and hitting full-go in December.
While he wasn’t sure the earlier start to baseball activity would give him an advantage on Opening Day, Braun went into the offseason with the mindset of preparing himself to play meaningful innings for Team USA in March.
“I like our chances,” Braun said of Team USA. “On paper we certainly have a great team. It’s challenging for us in that it is a little earlier than when guys are normally in their best shape. We are obviously not in midseason form at the beginning of the season, but I know everybody is ready to play. I’m really excited about it and looking forward to it.”
Unlike last offseason, Braun could focus on adjustments to his baseball routine, rather than off the field issues. This winter, Braun was able to finally relax and have some downtime, something valuable for his mindset.
“It was definitely, definitely a lot different for me,” Braun said. “It is just nice to be able to relax and have a normal routine and know exactly what I’m getting myself into.”
In a light-hearted mood, Braun joked about playing with teammate Jonathan Lucroy on Team USA, saying “I didn’t know Team USA had a bullpen catcher so I’m excited.”
Even though Braun suffered through the distraction of a failed drug test that was overturned on appeal, the 29-year-old still finished second in the National League MVP race. With his focus on baseball heading into this season, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke says an even bigger year is possible.
“When Ryan is healthy, Ryan can have a better year than he had last year and a better year than he had the year before,” Roenicke said. “He is capable of doing that. We need to keep him on the field and keep him healthy.
“If he wants to hit for power, he’s going to hit for power. If he wants to hit for average, he’s going to hit for average. There’s not much he can’t do.”
Improvement for a player the caliber of Braun is sometimes hard to gauge. He hit .319 with 41 home runs and 112 RBI last season and probably will put up a similar line in 2013. While many players would trade anything for those numbers, Braun is focused on little things that will make him an even better player.
One goal for this season is to walk more.
“I think the challenge is always longevity and consistency,” Braun said. “Hopefully I can continue to have success. There’s always room for improvement.
“Defense has always been something I’ve tried to prioritize and I think I’m headed in the right direction. Hopefully I can continue to get better defensively.”
As for his outlook for the team’s chances this season, Braun is optimistic the Brewers have the pieces to be in the mix for the playoffs again.
“I think the talent is there,” Braun said. “It is about going out and doing it over the course of a season. Because we now have depth, we have starting pitching depth, but relatively inexperienced we don’t know exactly what they are going to do, but aside from that we are certainly going to be competitive again. As long as you are competitive, that’s all you can ask for.”