Brewers' thumb war: Braun grapples with ailment

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By Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, August 17, 2014

LOS ANGELES--The Brewers have many reasons to want a healthy Ryan Braun going forward.

One hundred and five million reasons, to be exact.

With Braun still plagued by a recurring thumb issue that has compromised his productivity, the Brewers have to be concerned about the investment they made in their star player. After Braun’s involvement with performance-enhancing drugs was revealed last year, club officials backed away from the “face of the franchise” designation, but let’s face it—you don’t commit that kind of money to one player otherwise.

The five-year, $105 million contract extension the Brewers gave Braun in April 2011 doesn’t kick in until 2016. That deal includes salaries of $19 million in 2016, 2017 and 2018, $18 million in 2019 and $16 million in 2020, with a total of $18 million deferred in the years 2022-31. Before that extension begins, Braun has a $12 million salary next year.

When Braun’s salary jumps to the $19 million level, it will approach 20 percent of the $100 million payroll the Brewers have at present, which has been top of the scale in terms of giving the small-market club a chance to finish in the black. That’s a significant commitment to a healthy star, much less one currently experiencing a lingering, troublesome health issue.

From 2007, when Braun bolted on the scene as National League rookie of the year, through 2012, he averaged nearly 34 home runs and 107 runs batted in while hitting at a .314 clip. Beginning with his first full season in 2008, he never played fewer than 150 games over that stretch.

That productivity changed dramatically in 2013, when Braun’s playing time was curtailed by the thumb injury and other ailments before he was suspended for the final 65 games for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. In 61 games, he batted .298 with nine home runs and 38 RBI.

This season, Braun is on pace to play in 130 games. He spent more than two weeks on the disabled list with an intercostal strain and continues to be plagued by the nerve ailment in his right thumb, which makes it difficult to grip the bat properly and has sapped much of his power.

Though Braun leads the Brewers’ balanced offense with 67 RBI—that’s on pace for 88 for the season—he has hit only 14 home runs. That puts him on pace for fewer than 20.

Braun was batting a mere .220 (22 for 100) since the all-star break with a .664 OPS, dropping his overall average to .278 entering Saturday. The thumb injury has resulted in Braun chasing pitches out of the strike zone more than ever while turning him into an opposite-field hitter because it hurts to keep his top hand on the bat.

Braun’s on-base percentage since the break is .284. This from a hitter who had a .391 OBP as recently as 2012.

Because of the thumb issue, Braun isn’t the same hitter he was when the Brewers gave him the $105 million extension. Critics and cynics will say he obviously was cheating when he put up those big numbers and now isn’t the same as a clean player, but that’s ignoring the real fact that Braun is crippled by a thumb ailment that has no obvious solution.

Braun and the team’s medical staff have spent countless hours treating it, trying possible solutions and contacting doctors seeking advice.

“Clearly, there’s been a lot of attempts at that, but there’s been nothing that has presented itself as ideal to this point,” said assistant general manager Gord Ash, who closely monitors the team’s medical program. “Although I will say it’s been less of an issue this year than last year.”

Perhaps, but the numbers suggest it is a significant problem that needs a solution. Braun said earlier in the season that one surgical option would leave the thumb permanently numb, making it impossible to grip a bat properly. He had five months off, including his suspension last season, and shortly after reporting to spring training, the thumb flared up again, so rest isn’t the answer.

Braun experiences periods when the thumb calms down somewhat, but it is evident when it is paining him. He becomes defensive with his swings and does not hit the ball with authority. Manager Ron Roenicke recognized those at-bats Wednesday in Chicago and had Braun out of the lineup the next day.

“I don’t know what we can do with this to try to get it better,” Roenicke said. “I know the padding (on the bat and batting glove) has helped with what the trainers have got for him.”

Referring to season-ending injuries to Colorado stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, Roenicke said, “Those guys, it’s been the same thing. They’re the best players in this league when they’re healthy, and to try to keep them on the field is a challenge.”

Multiyear deals in major-league baseball are guaranteed, meaning the Brewers owe Braun some $120 million after this season whether he can properly grip a bat or not. No matter what they say publicly, club officials are very worried about it.

“I don’t think the financial part of it matters because he’s going to get it whether he has a good thumb or a bad thumb,” Ash said. “It’s guaranteed money. From a comfort and playing point of view, you want to find a solution.

“The money is the money. You can’t change it now. So what you’re trying to do is put him in the best physical condition you can to succeed.”

In the driver’s seat

Having stayed relatively healthy and productive this season, Aramis Ramirez has said he would like to play another two or three years. Considering the Brewers have no obvious replacement at third base, it would seem he is going nowhere, right?

Not so fast.

Ramirez and the Brewers have a mutual option for $14 million for 2015 with a $4 million buyout. That means if the club doesn’t exercise its half of the option, he gets $4 million to walk away.

But Ramirez also has to exercise his half of the option for it to go into effect for next season. Those who consider it a no-brainer for Ramirez to exercise his half of the option don’t understand the fine art of negotiating in baseball.

Should the Brewers make it clear they intend to exercise their half of the option, look for Ramirez and agent Paul Kinzer to try to lengthen the deal. They’d likely ask for a second year or at the very least a vesting option.

Ramirez would have the Brewers over a barrel because they would either have to do his bidding or look elsewhere for a third baseman. And the market won’t be so hot this winter at that position. Chase Headley, now with the Yankees, has been in serious decline, Hanley Ramirez is injury-prone and Pablo Sandoval would be quite pricey.

Yes, the 36-year-old Ramirez remains an injury risk. He missed 70 games last season with a recurring knee issue and spent three weeks on the disabled list this year with a hamstring strain.

But, when healthy, Ramirez has proved he can still produce runs and field his position in decent fashion. Since returning from that hamstring strain, he has swung the bat quite well, hitting .323 with eight homers and 35 RBI in 62 games entering Saturday.

Granted, Ramirez’s power numbers have declined (he has 13 homers) since the days he regularly bopped 30-plus out of the park, but that’s to be expected with a player of his age. The key is that he still drives in runs and hits in the clutch (.329 average with runners in scoring position).

Should Ramirez turn down his half of the option and no deal is worked out, it would be interesting to see if the Brewers extend him a qualifying offer as a free agent. With draft-pick compensation attached to such an offer, Ramirez would have trouble finding work elsewhere, but it also would commit the team to around $15 million in 2015 if he accepted.

An unclear path

After shortstop Jean Segura’s marvelous first full season in the majors, the Brewers took a run at signing him to a long-term contract extension in the spring. But with Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons setting the bar quite high with his seven-year, $58 million extension, the sides never got close enough to strike a deal and they tabled talks.

Only Segura knows if he went out and pressed after turning down the Brewers’ offer to prove he was worth more, but he hasn’t been even close to the hitter of 2013 who batted .294 with 20 doubles, 10 triples, 12 homers and 49 RBI despite a late-season fade.

Through 112 games entering Saturday, Segura was batting .234 with 11 doubles, six triples, four homers and 26 RBI. He had a .586 OPS, compared to his .752 mark of last season.

The 24-year-old Dominican Republic native received the crushing news just before the all-star break that his infant son died, and how he has managed to play since then is an exercise in courage. But his offensive production had waned long before that tragedy, leaving everyone to wonder what future expectations might be.

Segura is not a disciplined hitter at the plate, and despite his solid numbers in 2013, he walked only 25 times in 623 plate appearances, leading to a .329 OBP. That trend has continued this year with only 16 walks in 445 plate appearances and countless at-bats in which he got himself out by swinging at bad pitches.

Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron has been working with Segura on mechanical adjustments at the plate that would help him stay back better and get more leverage. But it will be up to Segura to stop swinging at so many pitches out of the strike zone.

For whatever reason, Segura has not had as much luck this season when he does put the ball in play. Last year, he had a .325 batting average when putting balls in play. This year, that number has plummeted to .261, suggesting a good dose of bad luck has played a part in his offensive decline.

To his credit, Segura has not taken his hitting woes into the field with him. He has played exceptionally well at short, showing great range and a powerful arm with a quick release and good hands. Those who had him pegged as a second baseman only in the big leagues were wrong.

Perhaps Segura will never have another banner offensive season as he did in 2013. But the Brewers think he’s better than he has shown this season, with the realization that he has played the second half with a heavy heart.

Whether the down year leads to Segura lowering his sights for a contract extension remains to be seen. He isn’t eligible for salary arbitration until after next season, so it might be best for all involved for Segura to go out and play another year to establish his future value.

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