Brewers lineup will focus on protecting Braun

Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell wants to protect his best hitter — Ryan Braun — in the lineup.

Don’t think of this as old-school conventional talk, with Counsell meaning it is important who bats behind Braun, who hits third in the lineup. Rather, Milwaukee’s field boss is looking at who will be up before Braun.

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“We focus a lot on protection after (but) the best way to protect Braun is to have runners on base when he’s hitting,” Counsell explained. “I worry more about getting guys on base in front of him then (who is hitting) after him.”

Looking at the recent lineups Counsell has put out during spring training, early indications are that Keon Broxton could be the leadoff hitter with Jonathan Villar batting second.

“The question I have to answer is where does Broxton hit in the lineup?” Counsell said. “I don’t know the answer yet. But certainly this is one possibility.”

Last season, Broxton batted all around the Brewers’ lineup: first (6 times), second (8), sixth (8), seventh (15), eighth (15) and ninth (6).

While Counsell did caution that spring training lineups can be made due to wanting to see certain players get more times at bat, he clearly is thinking along these lines in part because, well, speed kills.

“There’s no question Keon and Villar add the baserunning component to the game and make it tough on the other team’s pitchers,” Counsell said.

But he also added: “The second spot is a really important spot in the lineup, he hits a ton … it is an offensive production spot. I’m not looking for hit-and-run ability, I’m looking for offensive production.”

Noting that opponents will likely have a right-hander in late in games — not only are most closers right-handed but also Braun (and Broxton if he leads off) bat righty — Counsell floated the idea of either Travis Shaw or Eric Thames, who both bat left-handed, hitting second.

“I’m hoping it will give Thames and Shaw some better matchups,” Counsell said of a right-hander on the mound late in games.

Villar is a switch-hitter, but Counsell said the infielder is “more dangerous” hitting from the right side. Last season, Villar had a slash line of .309/.385/.545 against left-handed pitchers and for his career is at .276/.341/.455. While Villar isn’t shabby against righties, there is a drop-off (.276/.363/.433 in 2016 and .253/.333/.382 for his career).

“I think this is where we’ve changed a little bit … hopefully for the positive, against right-handed pitchers we have some decisions to make with our lineup that are quite frankly unsettled,” Counsell said.

Counsell also noted that he’ll likely use multiple players batting fourth, similar to last season when he most often used Jonathan Lucroy (70 times), Chris Carter (52) and Hernan Perez (27).

Candidates for the cleanup role include Shaw, Thames and Domingo Santana. Counsell said he expects Santana will see him hitting around the four, five and six spots.

“I don’t think it will be one guy (batting fourth),” Counsell said, “I think it will change vs. righties and lefties.”