With the news today that Zack Greinke will miss the first couple weeks of the 2011 season due to a broken rib, it has become even more imperative for the Milwaukee Brewers to be a great offensive ballclub.
They have the talent to score a ton of runs, and Ryan Braun will be a key figure for them to do so. Like his teammate Prince Fielder, Braun is coming off a subpar year in 2010. He hit .304 with 25 home runs and 103 RBI last year. Though those are good numbers, they are a significant decline compared to the numbers he posted during the first three years of his career.
Over his first three seasons, Braun hit .308 and averaged 31 home runs and 106 RBI. Most notably, his slugging percentage never dipped below .550. Last year, he slugged just .501—still a good number—but down over 130 points since his rookie campaign in 2007. Along with the decline in power, he has yet to gain a great deal of plate discipline, having never accumulated more than 57 walks in any single year.
In addition to the low number of walks, he has struck out at least 105 times every season. To his credit, that career-low of 105 strikeouts came last season, so there could be hope for him to become a more patient hitter. Hitting in front of Fielder should continue to give Braun ample opportunities to get good pitches to hit.
He just needs to accept the fact that a walk can be just as valuable as a hit with the power-hitting first baseman behind him.
At the end of last season, Braun was worn down physically, and his weight dropped to around 196 pounds. To combat that, he put on a solid 10-plus pounds of muscle in the offseason and reported to camp this year at 210 pounds. The added weight will help him maintain his strength throughout the season, which should help increase his power numbers back to what he posted earlier in his career.
One of Braun's best attributes as a hitter is his willingness to hit the ball to all fields. This makes him a dangerous threat to get on base, even if his power numbers never recover to the level of his rookie campaign. As long as he stays healthy, 200 hits per season should never be out of the realm of possibility for him.
Another strong, but undervalued, aspect of Braun's game is his speed. He has stolen at least 14 bases in each of his first four seasons. Former manager Ken Macha was not a fan of the running game, especially with Fielder hitting behind Braun; however new manager Ron Roenicke has promised to use the running game as more of a weapon in 2011.
Even with Fielder at the plate, Braun should expand his aggressiveness on the base paths. Opposing pitchers may choose to then walk Fielder, but Casey McGehee proved last season with his 104 RBI that he is more than capable of producing with runners on base.
There's no reason to believe Braun won't continue the kind of offensive production he has posted the first four seasons of his career. If he can develop the plate discipline Brewer fans hope he can, that should improve his overall numbers, including his power totals.
Expect another .300-plus batting average and a return in his power numbers with at least 30 home runs and well over 100 RBI. He has made the All-Star Game three straight seasons, and I don't see any reason to believe 2011 won't be a fourth.
Ryan Braun is off to a Hall of Fame start to his career. Unlike Fielder, he is signed long-term and will be in Milwaukee at least through the 2015 season. With Fielder's departure imminent, 2011 could serve as a springboard year for Braun to become the face of the franchise and cement his legacy as one of the best Milwaukee Brewers ever.
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