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Why Ryan Braun is my No. 1 player

2/27/2012

I believe I was sitting on the beach when I heard the shocking news that Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun was not going to be suspended for 50 games. He had won his appeal for a positive steroid test. Well, let's just say bedlam ensued in the fantasy baseball world. I've seen leagues in which Braun slipped to the fifth round under the assumption he'd miss 50 games. A friend of mine traded Braun in a keeper league for a closer (I advised against this). And now?

Braun vaults to the very top of my first round, Numero Uno, and of course, the feedback was interesting (and always welcome). My take is simple: This 30/30 guy was a fantasy monster last season (third on the Player Rater) and I don't see any reason why that will change in 2012. In fact, he should be mighty motivated to ensure another splendid statistical year.

Of course, others do have reasons why Mr. Braun will not repeat his exceptional numbers, so let's discuss them in this forum.

Question: Aren't you worried that he'll regress now that he's off the juice?

Answer: First of all, I'm paraphrasing for what was the most common choice of verbiage. I don't know what Braun did or did not do to trigger a positive test, to be honest, and while the cloud around his reputation might or might not have lessened after his stellar news conference on Friday, the fact is I am not reading too much into the situation. Braun had a magical year. He's had other terrific seasons as well. This is not Brady Anderson or Luis Gonzalez producing numbers shown in time to be aberrant to their respective careers. Braun hit 33 home runs, knocked in 111 runs, scored 109 and hit .332. He stole 33 bases. The previous four seasons he hit .307 and averaged 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, 99 runs and 16 steals. Braun's 2011 might end up an outlier to some degree -- mainly batting average and steals -- but he's not Jason Bay, either. Braun has been a top-5 player for years.

I'm not a doctor, and let's face it, even doctors can't say for sure to what effect steroids play a precise role on performance. We don't know if Braun took anything, and if he did, when he actually took it, and I'm simply not going to play the guessing game projecting ahead and expecting major regression. I expect he'll remain, as he was before, one of the most durable and consistent players in the game, one of perhaps five or so outfielders capable of making a run at 30/30, and safe to own.

Question: Losing Prince Fielder has to hurt his numbers, doesn't it?

Answer: I just don't buy the notion of lineup protection, folks. If I did, then rest assured Albert Pujols wouldn't be my No. 3 player off the draft board. Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and ... what else have the Angels got? Plus, take a closer look at Fielder, if you will. In 2010 he hit .261 with only 83 RBIs. In fact, in two of the previous three seasons leading up to 2011, Fielder wasn't as good as most people think, failing to achieve even a .880 OPS, which is essentially what Alex Gordon, Hunter Pence and Aramis Ramirez provided last season.

Oddly enough, assuming Braun returns to his cozy No. 3 lineup slot, new Brewers third baseman Ramirez is penciled in to "protect" him in the order. I don't think Ramirez is a great fantasy option for this season, but I can't argue against him being an offensive threat. Yes, he's not Fielder, but so what if Braun walks a few more times than normal? He'll be on base and those are potential steals. Jose Bautista's walk rate exploded, and he still provided massive numbers. Heck, I still like what the Brewers have following Braun in the order more than what the Angels protect Pujols with, and same with Bautista in Toronto, Matt Kemp in Los Angeles, etc.

Question: Isn't the potential Braun downside enough to scare you for exalting him that highly?

Answer: Not at all. In fact, go through the rest of the first round and find me a player sans downside. Let me also add that nobody is safe from testing positive for something. I never thought Braun would, for example.

Here's the rest of my top 10, as of today, with potential downside, though I don't really buy the downside as likely to occur.

2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers: Switching positions often trips hitters up. And while I'm not big on lineup protection, who's protecting him?

3. Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels: Switching leagues often trips hitters up. And just look at the rest of that underwhelming lineup.

4. Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers: Who owns the franchise? And didn't this guy hit .249 in 2010?

5. Jose Bautista, 3B/OF, Toronto Blue Jays: Home runs did drop from 54 to 43. If they drop by 11 again, he's not special. And he did hit .260 in 2010.

6. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies: Has averaged a mere 129 games played the past four seasons.

7. Justin Upton, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks: Well, still hasn't reached even 90 RBIs in a season, and durability has also been a concern.

8. Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees: Hmmm. Doesn't steal many bases? Strikeout rate went way, way up? Home run derby aftereffects ... OK, not much downside here.

9. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Miami Marlins: Just look at 2011. And he's switching positions.

10. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox: We could say look at 2010, but obviously his home run rate could return to his prior levels.

Yes, Braun has some downside, but those playing amateur psychologist would need to do so on many of the players they'd consider drafting.

Anyway, there's my updated top 10. Sadly, when Braun said he had been judged guilty before being proven innocent, he had a point. Look where everyone in fantasy ranked him! Well, now he's where he belongs, right at the top.