'On Deck' notes: Braun faces urgency in 2020

January 27th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- Here are 10 takeaways from “Brewers On Deck” at the Wisconsin Center on Sunday:

1) Braun can see the end of the road

Entering the final guaranteed season of his record-setting contract, is beginning to contemplate retirement.

“I don’t take for granted this could be my last year playing baseball,” Braun said. “Obviously, there’s a sense of urgency every year, but for me, knowing that this could be my last chance ever, it’s something that adds to that sense of urgency.”

The 36-year-old is set to earn $16 million in 2020, on a deal that includes a mutual option for 2021 at $15 million with a $4 million buyout. The Brewers have outfielders Lorenzo Cain, Avisaíl García and Christian Yelich all signed through at least 2021.

This season, the Brewers plan to move Braun between the outfield and first base, where he would form a platoon with free-agent pickup Justin Smoak.

“When I come here, thinking there’s at least a chance this is my last fan fest as a player, you definitely get a little nostalgic and think about how quickly it goes by,” said Braun, the Brewers’ first-round Draft pick in 2005 who made his Major League debut in ’07. “There’s a little more reflection and nostalgia, knowing there’s a possibility of that. I’ve thought about it a little bit, but for me, the goal is always to stay fully present and try to be the best version of myself as a player this year, and then figure out the future when I get through the season.”

Could that mean retirement?

“It’s possible,” Braun said, but it would depend on a series of factors including how this season goes, what the Brewers’ prospects look like for 2021, and his own family situation. Braun’s wife, Larisa, is due to give birth to a baby boy in May, their third child.

2) Yelich is full go

After missing the final three weeks of 2019 with a fractured right kneecap, declared himself ready for the start of Spring Training.

“It’s good,” he said. “Finally, fully healthy, ready to go. Shouldn’t be any limitations this spring. It’s nice to be healthy again.”

Besides getting him ready for Opening Day, the Brewers will have to decide whether to return Yelich to right field or move him to left. One of their highest-profile free-agent acquisitions, , may be a better fit in right field by virtue of his strong throwing arm.

“I think that’s something we’re going to think about a little bit more, and how that’s going to work,” manager Craig Counsell said. “Christian is the cog in the decision, because he’s probably the guy that’s going to be out there the most and in one position the most. We’ll think about that a little bit more, and how it affects Ryan and Avisaíl as well.”

3) Hader says it’s just business

In his first comments since his representatives and the Brewers were unable to agree to terms before the deadline for teams and arbitration-eligible players to formally swap figures, shrugged off the contract impasse.

“It’s definitely a learning process,” he said. “It’s the business side of baseball. We’ll see what happens.”

The sides face a significant gap after Hader’s reps at CAA Baseball filed for $6.4 million and the Brewers filed at $4.1 million. Since the Brewers are a “file and go” team, the case is likely headed to an arbitration hearing in February, after which a panel of judges will choose one salary or the other based on comparisons to past cases. Hader, the two-time reigning NL Reliever of the Year, posted a 2.62 ERA and 37 saves last season while posting the fourth-highest strikeout rate in history for a pitcher who logged at least 30 innings.

“Honestly, it’s really a saves thing,” Hader said. “I didn’t have as many saves as what they’re comping, so we’ll see.”

4) Urías’ injury is concerning

The Brewers will know more this week about the health of shortstop candidate , who was brought to the U.S. for an examination of a left wrist injury. Urías developed discomfort while playing winter ball in Mexico.

“Surgery is not off the table, so it’s possible there could be some absence, but speculating as to whether this impacts the season right now, I’m not prepared to do that,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “What we know right now is that it doesn’t appear it was an acute event. He wasn’t hit by a pitch, he didn’t jam his wrist while sliding into a base, it’s just something that popped up over his time in winter ball. Again, there are certain areas that can point to when things like that pop up, but until we have a definitive diagnosis, I don’t want to go any further.”

The Brewers had planned to give Urías an opportunity to wrest the starting shortstop job from , who would presumably get the job if Urías is sidelined. Others on the 40-man roster with shortstop experience include , , and .

5) Cain is finally healed up

After limping to the finish line in 2019 with a bad left knee and ankle, has dropped about 10 pounds and feels good on his feet again.

“I needed [the rest] big time,” he said. “I didn't feel right until maybe the beginning of December. That's probably when I started to feel completely healthy. Even when I started working out it was still bothering me a little bit. Once I got going, working out and doing all that. I did a lot of physical therapy, two or three times a week, to make sure my knee and ankle were good. I'm feeling really good right now and we all know I need to stay that way.”

Cain is coming off a banner season defensively -- he finally won a Rawlings Gold Glove Award after years of contending -- but struggled throughout 2019 at the plate. His adjusted OPS slipped 38 points, to 81.

An injury was a major factor, but it wasn’t to his lower half. Earlier in the season, Cain dealt with a nerve issue in his right thumb that grew so painful he needed a cryotherapy injection -- the same treatment that offered some relief to Braun. Cain is feeling fine this winter, but contemplating another injection as a preemptive measure.

“They say the nerve comes back after four or five months, and I don't want to have to deal with it, more than anything,” Cain said.

Five more things:

  1. doesn’t believe in the curse of the Brewers’ Opening Day starter, which has struck every man to take the ball since Kyle Lohse in 2015.

“It would mean everything,” Woodruff said. “Just making it to the big leagues is a big deal, but taking the mound on Opening Day ... definitely would be a huge honor. I would love that.”

  1. Reliever , coming back from Tommy John surgery last April, is due to resume throwing off a mound by the end of next week, according to Counsell. Knebel won’t be ready to pitch in Cactus League games, but he remains on track for a 13-month recovery, which could put him into the Brewers’ bullpen sometime in May.
  1. Counsell and other officials met with incoming catcher at Miller Park on Saturday to begin getting Narváez up to speed on his new staff “and how we think about things from the catching position,” Counsell said.
  1. Outfielder , who moved up the organizational depth chart by virtue of Trent Grisham’s trade to San Diego, said he underwent a procedure to repair a wrist injury after the season but is ready for the start of Spring Training.
  1. The shocking death of former NBA star Kobe Bryant cast a pall on festivities Sunday, particularly for California natives like Braun and Keston Hiura. Both addressed the sad news. Braun, who grew up in Los Angeles, estimated he saw Bryant play in person at least 50 times.

“I don’t think I have the words in my vocabulary to properly articulate the way that I feel,” Braun said. “It’s devastating. He was such an incredible basketball player and had such an impact on people’s lives off the court. He had so much left to give. It’s heartbreaking. ... It’s a constant reminder that you never know how much time you have left. Be present and tell the people you love that you love them.”