Braun's focus on return, move to right field
Saturday marks slugger's first team workout since serving suspension
PHOENIX -- Two years and some 50 yards removed from the site of a remarkable 2012 news conference in which he proclaimed his innocence and attacked his detractors, Ryan Braun stood in the shade at Maryvale Baseball Park and said he was sorry.
"I made a huge mistake," he said Thursday after reporting to Brewers camp. "I wish that I could change it. I can't change it. My whole life, I've tried to do nothing but good, and just because I made a mistake doesn't mean that [I] will stop doing good."
Referencing that regrettable news conference, Braun said sheepishly, "Different tone today than it was that day."
The Brewers' first full-squad workout is Saturday, and for the first time since last July, when he drew a suspension from Major League Baseball for violating the league's drug policy, Braun will be a full participant.
From a purely baseball standpoint, he is a fascinating player in Milwaukee's camp. Braun is moving to right field after six years in left so the team can make room for slugging prospect Khris Davis. Braun is also something of a health risk, having been compromised in 2013 long before the suspension by a nagging right hand injury. His .498 slugging percentage was the lowest of Braun's career.
Those issues will occupy Braun and the Brewers over the next five-plus weeks. Braun is happy to let the focus shift back to the field.
"It's great. It's exciting," he said. "Obviously, I've had a lot of downtime with my extended offseason. I'm certainly excited to be back, excited to be in Arizona, excited to meet my new teammates, looking forward to the challenge of learning a new position. I'm just excited to be back to playing baseball."
Still facing questions
Braun spoke for 10 minutes in his third press conference since accepting a season-ending suspension from Major League Baseball last July 22 and repeatedly expressed regret for his "mistake," but again refused to provide any additional details beyond his written statement last August. In it, he admitted using banned substances to speed his recovery from an injury.
On Thursday, he was asked what motivated him to accept the suspension instead of mounting another appeal. He was asked whether he took banned substances outside of 2011. He was asked whether he had done anything to mend his friendship with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Each time, Braun referred to his previous statements and declined to elaborate.
He was asked why he succumbed to PED use in the first place.
"If I had a good answer, I would be happy to provide it to you," Braun said. "Like I said, if I could go back, I would do things differently."
Is he troubled by the fact some fans will always suspect him of cheating?
"I have no control over other people's thoughts, ideas, opinions," Braun said. "I am very confident and secure in who I am as a person and my abilities as a baseball player. All I can do is focus on this year, moving forward, and continuing to be one of the best players in baseball, as I have been throughout my career."
That includes 2012, when Braun played all season under suspicion after winning his appeal by arguing the chain of custody of his urine sample. Braun batted .319 with a National League-leading and career-best 41 home runs that year, and finished second in NL MVP balloting to the Giants' Buster Posey.
Braun believes he can be that player again.
"I think I'm pretty strong mentally and emotionally, and I'm able to deal with adversity and challenges," Braun said. "As baseball players, we're all regular people, normal people who all deal with challenges and adversity. I think the biggest challenge sometimes in this game is not having peripheral vision. You want to just focus on the task at hand. I was able to do that pretty well in 2012.
"As a competitor, I enjoy that hostile environment. I enjoy the challenge of going into an opposing team's ballpark and dealing with that hostile environment. I try to use that as fuel, use that as motivation."
Does he expect to be rusty after his long layoff?
"I don't think there's any difference between six months or four or five months, whatever a typical offseason is," Braun said. "At the beginning of Spring Training you're always rusty."
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke hopes his star outfielder can shake that rust in short order. The Brewers face a very challenging early season schedule, beginning with the Braves at home and the World Series champion Red Sox in Boston.
As far as Roenicke is concerned, Braun has served his time and deserves an opportunity to move on.
"We need him on this club, and he's paid the penalty that Major League Baseball has put in place, and it's over with," Roenicke said. "I think we all make mistakes, and we're pretty forgiving people. I think everything will be fine. I think [teammates] will welcome him back really well."
Roenicke reiterated that he has heard everything he needs to hear from Braun, and said he expects the same level of production from a player who produced an NL Rookie of the Year season in 2007, and drove in 100 runs in each of the three subsequent seasons before Braun was ever connected to PEDs. Roenicke indicated he believes Braun only took banned substances in 2011, when he first ran afoul of MLB's drug program.
"So I expect him to be the same player, yes," Roenicke said. "He's in great shape. He's in a good frame of mind. He knows this stuff is behind him, and I expect him to come out and be the kind of guy that he's always been."
That guy will be playing a new position.
Davis, a slugger who turned 26 over the winter, did enough last season in Braun's absence (11 home runs, .596 slugging percentage in 136 at-bats) to convince Brewers officials that he deserves a more prominent role in 2014. Davis does not possess a strong arm, so Braun is moving to right field. In the long term, the Brewers believe it is generally easier to find left fielders. In the short term, it opens the opportunity for Davis.
"That's never an easy decision," Roenicke said. "I actually thought about it my first year here [in 2011]. Usually, when you see that good a defensive outfielder, a guy who can throw, you usually think of him as a right fielder. … It won't be that easy of a transition, even though he's a very good left fielder. It's different when that ball turns the other way."
The Brewers will put Braun through more defensive drills to get him up to speed, Roenicke said, and as usual will let Braun have a say in his schedule once Cactus League games begin.
Braun is not sure what to expect in right field.
"I haven't really been out there a whole lot," he said. "I guess everything that I'm accustomed to in left field will be opposite in right field. So I don't anticipate it necessarily being easy."
At Miller Park, Braun will face some challenges in right field. In addition to the 90-degree caroms sometimes produced by grounders down the line, Miller Park features a party area in right field that juts onto what used to be the warning track. The outfield wall takes several unusual turns because of that.
"He'll get used to it," Roenicke said. "You've got to be able to turn your head off the ball and run and see exactly where that cut-out is. The throwing part won't be an issue because he throws well and is accurate. It's a lot easier when you have a straight wall and it's curved nice for you and it's padded and all that. Maybe he plays a little deeper at the beginning to help that out. I know [former right fielder Norichika] Aoki played deeper."
The Brewers will also work to find ways to keep Braun healthy. Before the suspension last year, he was severely diminished by neck and thumb issues that sapped Braun's power. The thumb is something of a long-term concern, Roenicke indicated.
"The trainers are working to pad up either the gloves he puts on or the bat itself in trying to get a little pressure off that," Roenicke said. "I know he doesn't like that, because he really likes to feel the bat on his fingers, and you lose a little bit of feeling [when you pad the bat]. Hopefully they come up with something that will help that and we won't fight with that all year."
Braun said the thumb felt "pretty good," and "a lot better than it was."
"I would imagine with any injury, there is always a chance of recurrence," he said. "So we will do whatever we can to prevent it."
At some point, Roenicke hopes, things will return to normal for Braun.
"I'm hoping he gets off to a great start, and the better he does, the less he's going to hear about things," Roenicke said. "Hopefully he'll have a great year."