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Saturday, May 3, 2014
Brewers' fixes to Ryan Braun's absence

By Christina Kahrl

After a week of keeping Ryan Braun on the shelf, the Brewers finally accepted the inevitable by moving their star slugger to the DL with a strained oblique. Retroactive as it might be, we’ll see if he’s back by May 12. As Stephania Bell noted when Chris Davis went down with a strained oblique, the average recovery time for a position player is just short of four weeks. Even with a week already done, absent any updates, it won't be surprising to see Braun miss another three.

Which is a problem, of course, because unlike last year when Braun could readily accept his suspension for PED use and miss a lot of time, this year the Brewers are a strong enough club to be talking postseason potential after getting off to a 21-9 start. In the lineup, Braun has been a major component of that initial success, along with mercurial center-field star Carlos Gomez. Beyond an honorable mention to Jonathan Lucroy, the Gomez-Braun tandem comprises almost the full extent of the Brewers’ bragging rights on offense.

Ryan Braun
Ryan Braun's oblique injury means that he won't be high-fiving anybody for a while yet.
The real key to this team’s success has been its pitching, having gotten a league-best 24 quality starts in 30 turns. Closer Francisco Rodriguez hasn’t allowed a run or blown a save yet. Along with Tyler Thornburg and lefties Zach Duke and Will Smith, the Brewers’ back-end relief quartet has allowed just four runs in 57 ⅓ innings, a 0.63 ERA. All of these things are going to come to an end, barring a full-fledged return to 1968 or the Deadball Era. Nobody is going to get quality starts 80 percent of the time. K-Rod will allow a run. Or two. And that’s when Milwaukee will need its offense to pick things up, if not sooner.

Where will the runs come from? In the short term, with Braun gone from the lineup, the Brewers need to start seeing production from several lineup slots generating little offense so far, but they especially need to get some slugging from traditional power positions in the corners. Guys such as third baseman Aramis Ramirez and left fielder Khris Davis are off to slow starts, but both should deliver this season: A healthy Ramirez is usually good for 25 bombs, while ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski projected Davis to slug .450.

The first-base platoon of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay is far from anyone’s ideal, and it’s delivering about what you would expect: Overbay gets on base a little, Reynolds has popped a half-dozen homers, and they’ve combined for a .707 OPS, more than 100 points below the NL average at first base (.819). Maybe they pick things up, more likely not; they were a cheap place-holding solution from the outset, and with prospect Hunter Morris at Triple-A Nashville and former Cal State-Fullerton closer/DH Nick Ramirez off to a good start at first base in Double-A Huntsville, the farm system might provide in-season upgrades.

But the other thing to ponder is what the Brewers do with the at-bats made available by Braun’s absence. Logan Schafer or Caleb Gindl are not answers, they’re filler, and the Brewers need more than that. One short-term solution that might be worth checking out is Rickie Weeks. Never an asset on defense at second base, Weeks is another example of a player who has struggled to stay healthy while living up to the demands of playing one of the game’s toughest positions every day. Last year, Weeks lost a third of the season to a hamstring injury, his third career stint on the 60-day DL.

But it wasn’t so very long ago that Weeks’ bat belonged in the lineup every day, mashing 70 home runs with a .791 OPS in 2010-12 before last year’s injury-shortened campaign. This year, Weeks has gotten little playing time now that he’s being platooned with Scooter Gennett at the keystone. If Weeks becomes the latest former injury-prone second-base starter to become healthier moving into a multipositional rover’s role -- a la Tony Phillips (on the high end) or Jerry Hairston Jr. -- that would be a useful thing to help paper over multiweek absences like these. It would also be a way to see if Weeks will be worth keeping in 2015, since he’s already unlikely to see that year’s contract option vest through playing time after riding pine for much of the last month.

Can Weeks play a good right field? Maybe, maybe not. But since most right fielders only make two plays per game, and today's age of strikeouts makes defense less important than ever, it's worth the Brewers' while to use those four at-bats per game in the next few weeks to see what Weeks has left.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.