Before the coronavirus pandemic forced a suspension of Spring Training in mid-March, Braun was pondering whether 2020 might be his final season. He is 36, entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, had a third child on the way, and expected to take part in time shares in right field and first base. In January, he said “it’s possible” he might retire at season’s end.
Now, that calculus has changed. While Braun has reveled in playing dad to Carter James, born May 31, the combination of the DH being implemented for 2020 and the prospect of playing this season in empty stadiums has him thinking more and more about ‘21.
“I would say everything happening in our world, the COVID stuff specifically, certainly changes the dynamic,” Braun said. “This season will be nothing like a normal baseball season experience. I think that all factors into changing the way I am thinking about things right now.
“I would say based on where I’m at now, there is a higher likelihood that I would be interested in playing another year now than I thought there would be three or four months ago.”
This is the final season of the five-year, $105 million extension that Braun and the Brewers struck in 2011. The deal includes a $15 million mutual option for 2021 with a $4 million buyout.
While it’s possible that NL pitchers will resume hitting in 2021, there’s allure to playing a full, normal season. Braun plans to delay the decision until next winter, when he can weigh all factors with his wife, Larisa, and their families.
“I’m excited about [the addition of the DH],” Braun said. “I still think that I can play this game at a really high level. Offensively, I still think that I can be really good, especially when I am healthy. Being able to get a lot of my at-bats out of the DH spot, in theory should be something that will help keep me healthier and more productive.”
There’s not much to go on besides the theory. Of Braun’s 7,199 career plate appearances, only 103 have been as the DH. He has served that role in 23 of his 1,637 career starts, slashing .266/.324/.511 (compared to .298/.360/.533 overall).
It’s too small a sample, Braun said, to know whether he can thrive in the role. But he’s eager to give it a shot.
“I think for all position players, it’s something that we’re excited about,” Braun said. “Instead of guys having to have days off, you can rotate through that spot. I think it’s something that the fans should be excited about, too, because instead of Christian [Yelich] having to take a day off, he can be the DH and still get to swing the bat four or five times instead of having to take the day completely off. All the way around, it’s something I’m looking forward to.”
Braun said he’s had only passing conversations with Brewers manager Craig Counsell about the DH, but he anticipates a number of players seeing at-bats in that role. Besides using it to offer partial rest to everyday players like Yelich, the Brewers could choose to improve their defense on some nights by using hitting savant Keston Hiura as the DH while another infielder like Luis Urías, Brock Holt, Jedd Gyorko or Eric Sogard handles second base. It could also offer opportunity to a big bat like Logan Morrison, who put on a power show in March while bidding to make the team as a non-roster invitee.
But the position seems uniquely suited to Braun, for a whole host of reasons. He receives regular treatment to avoid flare-ups of a balky back and a troublesome thumb. In recent seasons, the Brewers have found that when they regularly get him off his feet, Braun can still be a force at the plate down the stretch. His grand slams at St. Louis on Sept. 15 and at Cincinnati on Sept. 25 in the postseason clincher ranked among the Brewers’ biggest hits all season.
Then there is the positional logjam of which he was part. At the start of spring, Counsell announced the Brewers were planning to shift Yelich to accommodate newcomer Avisaíl García, whose strong throwing arm makes him a prototypical right fielder. Another newcomer was switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak, whom Brewers officials view as a prime bounce-back candidate after a disappointing 2019 season in Toronto. Braun would find at-bats in right field or first base when it made sense.
Now, that traffic is cleared by the DH.
“Obviously, the preparation for this season is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Braun said. “So, even though it’s a shorter season, it will also be far more challenging than it’s ever been to keep guys healthy. I do think the DH spot can be used [for that]. But if you look at the profile, it does make sense if everybody is healthy for me to likely be the primary DH to start.”