Roenicke: Long-term benefits of moving Braun to RF

Never mind the trade rumors. Ryan Braun seems much more likely to change positions than he is to change teams.

The Brewers outfielder, a subject of some flimsy rumors coming off a 65-game suspension, was first approached by manager Ron Roenicke about a month ago about the potential of moving from left field to right. The topic came up again over lunch in Los Angeles last week between Braun, Roenicke, Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin.

Such a switch, Roenicke said, would be less about the short-term benefit — freeing at-bats for prospect Khris Davis, whose bat warrants playing time but whose arm limits him to left field — and more about the long-term.

“Long-term, it’s certainly easier for Doug to find left fielders than it is to find right fielders,” Roenicke said. “So I think that was the main idea, [knowing we can] put Ryan in a position where we know he can play it defensively and be good at it.”

Braun told Roenicke he is open to the idea, a sentiment echoed by Melvin to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which first reported on Thursday that the topic had been discussed.

The move would be good news for Davis, who was promoted back to the Majors when Braun was suspended on July 22 and made a splash by finishing the season with 11 home runs with 27 RBIs, a .353 on-base percentage and a .596 slugging percentage in 56 games. Brewers officials believe that, in time, Davis has the potential to produce like the Cardinals’ Allen Craig, and have discussed various ways to work the soon-to-be 26-year-old into the 2014 starting lineup. Because Davis is not comfortable at first base, left field is the most likely spot.

At the same time, the Brewers’ incumbent right fielder, Norichika Aoki, is entering the final year of his contract. He has hit .287 with a .355 on-base percentage over the past two seasons, mostly serving as a capable leadoff hitter, but seems destined for free agency next winter because the Brewers have a relatively deep stable of outfield prospects.

Moving Braun now would eliminate Milwaukee’s long-term uncertainty in right field, but it would create a crowded left field for 2014. Aoki and Davis would be awkward platoon partners because the left-handed-hitting Aoki actually has better success against left-handed pitchers (.304 average in the Majors) than righties (.279). In his limited Major League stint, right-handed-hitting Davis had similarly reversed splits in terms of batting average (.297 against righties; .244 against lefties) but hit for better power against left-handers.

That temporary logjam could always be eased with a trade. Since Aoki earns a modest salary (a base just shy of $2 million in 2014), he could be an intriguing chip for the Brewers, who need a first baseman and late-inning relief pitching.

“With Aoki, as of right now, we plan to play him like we did last year, but things come up,” Roenicke said. “With Khris Davis, who we liked last year, when he’s hot he shows you what he can do. It allows you to slip him in there.”

Roenicke added: “The challenge, if you [play both], would be what do you do with the leadoff spot when Nori is not in there? You potentially change your leadoff and your No. 2 hitter more than you would like to. Last year, we moved everybody all the time, and it didn’t seem to be a problem. Some [managers] do it all the time and it doesn’t seem to matter. If you’re doing it for the long term, it helps you.”

If they make the move, Roenicke sees Braun working through an easy transition.

“He should be a legitimately good defensive right fielder,” Roenicke said. “He’s got the arm, he’s got the speed, his judgment is good. … I think he likes to be challenged. I told him, it’s a matter of repetition. In left field, your brain knows that when the ball is hit at you, it’s always going to break toward the left field line, and it’s a matter if your brain seeing enough balls to know automatically that it’s going the other way. It’s going to take a little while before your brain automatically knows that.”

As for when Braun will return to the public eye, that remains unclear. Roenicke said the topic of the Brewers’ annual fanfest on Jan. 26 did not come up over lunch.

“He seems to be in a really good frame of mind,” Roenicke said. “He has a wedding coming up [Braun is marrying Larisa Fraser in two weeks] that he’s excited about. So it was more about trying to catch up with him. We discussed a little of everything.”

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