There are two guys in the NL Central having great bounce-back seasons but whose efforts are being wasted on clubs that are about as bad as everyone expected them to be.
It sounds like these two guys would be better off in greener pastures. And before long, the summer trade market could make it happen.
Provided you know how to read a headline, you've already figured out I'm talking about Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun and Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce. They're looming large on the ol' radar after combining for three home runs Saturday. Braun clubbed two in a 7-4 win over the New York Mets at Miller Park, and Bruce sent one into orbit in a 2-1 victory over the Oakland A's at Great American Ball Park.
It is that dinger to which we shall turn our attention:
Ooh. Ahh. Whoa. Et cetera.
Braun's 10th and 11th home runs of 2016 snapped him out of a mini-funk and upped his batting average to .316 and his OPS to .919. After hitting just .275 with an .815 OPS over the last two seasons, the 32-year-old is "back" like Matthew McConaughey circa 2014.
Bruce is enjoying a renaissance of his own. His 14th home run of 2016 upped his average to .276 and his OPS to .911. For a guy who hit just .222 with a .695 OPS over the last two campaigns, the 29-year-old's comeback is one that no lame reference to an actor can properly capture.
With the Brewers and the Reds stuck in full-on rebuilding mode as they languish many games behind the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, the only question is how long it will be before their clubs move Braun and/or Bruce. The best answer appears to be "soon."
Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors has already rated Braun and Bruce among the league's top 10 summer trade candidates, and Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe has heard rumblings about both. Braun is the "hot name out there," an NL scout told Cafardo. The Reds are "open for business and Bruce is available."
Braun and Bruce both have no-trade protection in their contracts. The former can block trades to all but five clubs. The latter can block trades to eight clubs. But Bruce's contract is less of a hurdle for prospective buyers. Braun is still owed $80 million over four years after 2016. Bruce is owed $12.5 million this year, after which his club can either pick up a $13 million option or pay a $1 million buyout.
That not only equates to less money for the Reds and a buyer to haggle over, but it means fewer questions for buyers to ask regarding whether Bruce can keep up his hot hitting. And as it is, his hot hitting is believable enough.
Bruce never recovered from the left-knee woes he experienced in 2014, and the knee seemed to dog him in 2015 too. As August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs wrote, the most noticeable problem was Bruce's opposite-field power, or lack thereof.
But this year, it's made a nice comeback. As of Saturday morning, Bruce's recent opposite-field slugging percentages lined up like this:
- 2014: .313
- 2015: .374
- 2016: .615
Bruce has been clobbering the ball in general this year. His overall hard-hit rate was 38.7 percent entering Saturday, well ahead of his career rate of 34.5 percent. So despite some less than awesome defensive metrics, he's looking a lot like the feared slugger he was between 2010 and 2013.
Braun, meanwhile, comes with more baggage. Prospective buyers not only have to square themselves with his contract, but with his recent thumb and back woes. Also, nobody's forgetting his performance-enhancing drug drama.
But as rival evaluators told Buster Olney of ESPN.com last month, Braun's 2016 season has "altered the perception of him as a player you wouldn’t touch because of his age and PED history into someone worth considering." At least in part, this would seem to be thanks to his return to good health.
"Swing is in a good place, bat path is in a good place," Braun said in April, via Genaro C. Armas of the Associated Press. "But more than that, I'm healthy, healthiest I've been in a while. I feel good."
We'll have to take Braun's word for it that he's feeling healthy for the first time in a while, but there's no need to take his word for it on his swing. After struggling mightily in 2014 and 2015, he's not chasing (O-Swing percent), whiffing (SwStr percent) or striking out (K percent) as much in 2016:
|Ryan Braun's Approach: 2014/2015 vs. 2016|
One thing to be skeptical about is the rate at which Braun is putting balls on the ground, as his 54.4 GB percent is way above his career norm. The fact that he's putting up good power numbers despite that, however, points to how he's not wasting what he puts in the air. His hard-hit rate on fly balls is safely above his career average.
And where Bruce only has hit bat to offer, Braun can still run the bases and, depending on which metric you prefer, is playing a good left field. He's not the same guy, but he's at least a reflection of the person who was contending for MVPs in his heyday.
A scout Cafardo spoke to listed the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and Chicago White Sox as potential buyers for Braun. Narrow that list to clubs with the financial and young talent assets needed to make music, and the Astros, Red Sox and Phillies make a fair bit of sense.
Per Cafardo, teams that could be interested in Bruce are the Phillies, Cardinals and Mets, plus the Kansas City Royals. KC's subpar right field production and long list of injuries give it incentive to go after Bruce. But it should watch out for the Cleveland Indians, a fellow AL Central contender that could be a sleeper in the Bruce sweepstakes.
With Braun and Bruce looking like their better selves on teams that have virtually no reasons to keep them, everything is there for the trade winds to start blowing.