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MILWAUKEE–It’s almost as if there are two Ryan Brauns.
There’s Ryan Braun, the offensive prodigy, a slugger who never blinked an eye when facing major league pitching for the first time and seemingly could do whatever he wanted at the plate.
Then there’s Ryan Braun, third baseman-in-training, capable of making errors on the easiest of plays while also showing his athleticism with web gems on occasion.
Add it all up, and the offensive fireworks’”not to mention his future potential’”overshadow the defensive shortcomings to make Braun the 2007 Baseball America Rookie of the Year. It also makes the Brewers determined to keep Braun at third base until proven otherwise.
“He shouldn’t even look at a bat this winter,” manager Ned Yost said at the end of the season. “Instead, he should take 100, 150 ground balls a day.
“That’s where he really needs to work and focus his game. He’s so good offensively, he’s so talented, he’s such a natural offensive player. He has MVP qualities, but his defense has to be tightened up. It’s a matter of repetition and experience over there.”
When they selected Braun with the fifth pick of the 2005 first-year player draft, the Brewers knew he needed fine-tuning at third base. After playing short most of his life, the Los Angeles-area native shifted to third for his junior year at Miami to help make the team stronger.
That draft included three coveted college third basemen among the first five picks. The Royals took Nebraska’s Alex Gordon second overall, the Nationals tabbed Virginia’s Ryan Zimmerman fourth, and the Brewers were more than happy to get Braun at No. 5.
“You always knew he would be a pretty good player,” Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik says. “We wouldn’t have taken him No. 5 in the country if we didn’t feel that way.
“But, honestly, for anybody to do what he has done this quickly is a pleasant surprise. To see him doing the things he has been doing, we’re all proud.”
Brief Stop For Seasoning
Even though Braun, 23, had not played above the Double-A level, the Brewers actually thought about keeping him on their roster at the end of spring training. Veteran Corey Koskie was still sidelined with post-concussion syndrome’”he wound up missing the entire season’”leaving a void at that position.
Braun served notice of things to come by socking two home runs, including a grand slam, and driving in seven runs in his very first exhibition game. But he also made some egregious throwing errors during camp, and club officials decided it best to send him to Triple-A Nashville for further seasoning.
The Brewers opened the season with a platoon of veterans, Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino, at third base, but both struggled mightily at the plate over the first two months. Meanwhile, Braun was taking apart Pacific Coast League pitching, batting .344/.418/.701 with 10 home runs and 22 RBIs in 34 games.
Unable to wait any longer, the Brewers summoned Braun on May 25 and plugged him into the starting lineup. All they were asking of him was to bat third for a club leading the National League Central Division and looking for its first playoff berth in 25 years.
“I really wouldn’t want it any other way,” Braun says. “I couldn’t envision coming into a better situation, just the atmosphere here, being on a winning team. It has been real exciting for me.
“I’ve said it before. Batting between J.J. (Hardy) and Prince (Fielder), two all-stars, makes it a lot easier.”
Sometimes, it seemed too easy. Braun was white-hot from the outset, batting .350/.391/.667 with 11 home runs and 32 RBIs in 40 games leading into the all-star break.
Batting ahead of NL home run champ Fielder no doubt helped, but Braun seemed impervious to slumps, rarely going more than a game or two without a hit. When the smoke off his bat cleared at the end of the season, he had hit .324/.370/.634 in 113 games, with 26 doubles, six triples, 34 homers and 97 RBIs.
Braun obliterated the club rookie records of 28 home runs and 81 RBIs, set over a full season by Fielder in 2006. His slugging percentage was the highest by a rookie in major league history (minimum 400 at-bats), easily topping the mark of .618 established by Oakland’s Mark McGwire in 1987.
Allowing a lefthanded pitcher to face the righthanded-hitting Braun proved to be a recipe for disaster for opponents. He absolutely crushed lefties, batting .450/.516/.964 with eight doubles, two triples, 15 homers and 35 RBIs in 111 at-bats.
“There’s a lot of good stuff there,” says Brewers first-year hitting coach Jim Skaalen, who worked with Braun in the minors. “He’s got tremendously quick hands and really hits through the ball.
“He stays on the ball as well as anyone we’ve got. You watch his swing in slow motion and it’s so long after contact, which is what we try to get everybody to do.”
Braun’s offensive exploits were so stunning that it allowed him to jump in with a very strong rookie-of-the-year field, including Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and Arizona center fielder Chris Young, both of whom played the full year in the majors. Houston outfielder Hunter Pence started the year in the minors but came up a month before Braun.
Braun reached 20 homers in 64 games, the fastest in the majors since Albert Pujols did it in 63 games in 2001. He was fastest to 25 and 30 homers (82 and 94 games) since McGwire (77 and 84) in 1986 and ’87.
Was it really just four years ago that Braun was Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year at Miami?
“I really don’t think I could have asked for much more,” Braun says. “You always want to contribute. I tried to be as consistent as possible and contribute to wins.
“It’s a matter of being able to make adjustments. You face pitchers over and over and they try to get you out with what they see as your weaknesses. I feel I was able to make adjustments throughout the year.”
Defense Is Still A Problem
Unfortunately for Braun, as his offensive numbers piled up, so did his errors. He finished with 26 errors in 111 starts at third base, including one dreadful three-error game against San Diego in the final series of the season.
Braun finished with a .895 fielding percentage. Suffice it to say that any fielding percentage that doesn’t start with a “9″ is not one to be proud of.
“I think Braunie’s biggest problem is reading the ball off the bat,” says Brewers coach Dale Sveum, a former big league third baseman who spent countless hours working with the rookie. “He’s gotten a lot better on the routine plays, has gotten a lot better with his throws.
“He’s a very good athlete. He’s working very hard at it. It gets easier when you learn to slow the game down. That comes with the territory. It wasn’t like we brought him up and didn’t think some of these things would happen. Obviously, he’s a very special young man. He has worked his butt off defensively. He’s going to get better, no doubt about it.”
Some scouts insist the Brewers must move Braun to a corner spot in the outfield, that he’ll never smooth out enough to be a proficient third baseman. But critics said the same thing about second baseman Rickie Weeks at the outset of the 2006 season, when he kicked more balls than Mia Hamm.
But, through hard work and athleticism, Weeks turned himself into a respectable player at that position. No Gold Glover, but enough so that he’s no longer a liability.
Sveum believes Braun will do likewise, and points to the fact that Braun played in a mere 199 games in the minors before being called up. When you take the bullet train to the majors, all of your warts will be exposed’”and soon.
“He hasn’t played a lot of third base. We tend to forget that,” Sveum says. “Most of us who get to the big leagues have played 400 to 500 games at the same position in the minors. He hasn’t played a lot of games out there.
“We threw him out there in a very difficult position, asked him to carry us offensively and learn a new position at the big league level. It looks easy but it isn’t when you’re over there. That’s why the call it the hot corner. He already has gotten better.”
You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes with Braun to realize he is brimming with confidence. Defensive hiccups might set back a mentally fragile player, but Braun understands he must improve in the field and is determined to do so.
After all, when you can hit like he can, you don’t have to be Brooks Robinson to earn your keep.
“For me, obviously, I need to find a way to separate my offense from my defense,” he says. “Sometimes that’s hard to do when you struggle defensively. You feel like you have to make it up offensively because that’s the only other thing you’ve got.
“It’s only my second full (professional) year of playing third base. I don’t expect to be perfect but I certainly expect to be better than I have been. I have to continue to work hard and hopefully I’ll improve.
“You learn to deal with failure, mentally and physically. It’s an emotional roller coaster, for both you and the team. It’s such a long season, you’re going to have ups and downs. It’s definitely a good experience and I feel I learned a lot this year. I want to use that to my advantage in the future.”