Braun's time as prospect growing short
Third baseman could be on Brewers' Opening Day roster
PHOENIX -- More than one observer has watched Brewers prospect Ryan Braun take batting practice this spring and wondered aloud, "Where does all that power come from?"
"Try shaking his hand," general manager Doug Melvin says. "You'll feel where his power comes from."
Hands and forearms, Melvin says.
Still, he is not going to win any bodybuilding contests, manager Ned Yost admits.
"You look at him and he doesn't look like anything special," Yost says. "But on that baseball field, he is."
Don't blink or you might miss Braun's status as a Brewers prospect. Drafted just two years ago and without a single at-bat above the Double-A level, Braun is doing his part this spring to win Opening Day duties at third base.
The Brewers are jumbled there. Corey Koskie remains sidelined with post-concussion syndrome, and more than seven months after he jarred his head, he still can't do much more than walk on a treadmill. Plan B is a platoon of veterans Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino, but that would leave the team a bit short of depth on an infield that has had injury issues in recent years.
So the team is giving Braun a good, long look. No one doubts he can hit, but Braun will have to show the team that he can play defense at third base.
"It's pretty apparent," Braun said. "I've worked hard and I feel like I've definitely made some strides."
Those defensive strides fall into bench coach Dale Sveum's department. Braun played shortstop until his junior year at the University of Miami before switching to third, a move Sveum made during his Brewers playing career. Braun has also been tutored by Alex Rodriguez, who has ties to the U and made perhaps the highest-profile move from short to third in baseball history.
As Sveum describes it, Braun's problem is that he still has shortstop moves at third base.
"He has really good hands, he just has to understand the game a little bit more," Sveum said. "His throwing is probably the biggest problem right now. He has a great arm, he just has to understand that. He's not a 'major overhaul' guy by any means."
Added Yost: "He's a project, but he's not a huge project defensively. He's got baseball instincts. He's got smooth hands. He's got good quickness. He's got good range. We just need to slow him down a little bit. When he gets in trouble, it's because everything speeds up. He throws the ball too quick. He doesn't get his feet set. Once he learns the rhythm of the game a little bit and gains confidence, he's going to be fine."
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Perfect example: Braun played all nine innings of the Brewers' Cactus League opener, unofficially his first full Major League game. He went 4-for-5 with a three-run home run and a go-ahead grand slam. He stole a base, and he would have been 5-for-5 if a close call at first base would have gone his way.
"How about that guy?" A's manager Bob Geren said. "Those balls were launched. You can certainly see why he was a first-round pick. That's a big-league swing."
But Braun also made an error that cost the team a run. Braun charged for a chopper and threw wildly into the Brewers bullpen.
So Braun, Sveum and third-base coach Nick Leyva work on drills every morning. For example, Braun takes five minutes of grounders as if a slow baserunner is coming out of the box, then five more minutes as if it's a moderate runner, then five minutes "of Ichiro."
"Trying to get used to the finesse part," Braun explains. "You don't have to throw the ball as hard as you can every time. When you're throwing hard, you're not necessarily as accurate as you are when you take your time, set your feet and make nice, easy throws. A lot of times, especially with throws to second base, I was throwing it too hard all of the time."
Second baseman Rickie Weeks has been trying to shake the same reputation of an offensive player and defensive liability. Braun is different, Yost said, because Weeks had trouble with stiff hands and wild throws. Braun only needs work on the latter.
Yost also says the situation is different because Weeks did most of his training in the Majors for a Brewers team that, Yost admits, was not going to contend for the World Series. But the Brewers have that mentality now, and they are only going to promote Braun to the big leagues if he can be a part of that quest.
How much can a player improve defensively in a six-week stretch of Spring Training?
"We're fixing to find out," Yost said.
And how can a team be sure a young player is ready?
"You can't," Sveum said. "You don't have a crystal ball. Nobody can get inside a kid's heart to find out what he's got."
Braun insists he is not worrying about the Brewers' looming decision.
"To be honest, I'm not concerned with anybody else's situation," Braun said. "I'm working hard on myself, and I feel like I'm talented enough that if I work hard, I don't have to be concerned about anybody. Whatever anybody else says or does has no bearing on my success."
Sounds confident, right? That was nothing.
"I'm ready," he said. "I'm definitely ready. This offseason I worked really hard at getting better on defense. Offensively, I know I'm definitely ready, but I understand that defensively I have to get better. I feel like I've made great strides. I'm extremely confident in my abilities. I know I can play."
Sooner rather than later, everyone is going to find out.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.