Braun, Aramis bring order to Brewers' batting order
Healthy this spring, No. 3-4 hitters were in lineup together just 27 times in 2013
PHOENIX -- Less than two weeks from Opening Day and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke is still experimenting with the leadoff spot.
Not that he's worried.
"We have three, four guys swinging the bat well," Roenicke said.
What is there for Roenicke to worry about with a lineup that will feature a No. 3-4 punch of Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez? They are both healthy and ready to go this spring. Ramirez played back-to-back games for the second time this spring on Tuesday, and he's expected to be back on the field again Wednesday.
"If you're hunting for your [No.] 3, 4 hitters, you're in trouble," said Roenicke.
The Brewers were in trouble last year.
And last year, they had a legit leadoff hitter in outfielder Norichika Aoki, whose trade to Kansas City for reliever Will Smith in the offseason created the spring battle for the top spot in the lineup.
What they didn't have last year was consistency in the third and fourth spots. Braun and Ramirez were in the starting lineup together for 27 of the 162 games in a 74-88 season in which Milwaukee finished in fourth place in the National League Central.
What's the difference?
A year ago, seven players hitting third for the Brewers combined to produce 178 runs, eighth in the NL, and the nine players who hit fourth combined to produce 164 runs, ninth in the NL. In 2012, the first year Braun and Ramirez were teammates and the primary No. 3-4 hitters for the Brewers, Milwaukee led the NL in run production out of the top two lineup spots.
"Without those guys, we have a big hole in the middle of the lineup," said catcher Jonathan Lucroy, the projected No. 5 hitter. "Without Ryan in the three-hole, we have a problem."
The Brewers had definite problems last year.
Braun went on the disabled list with a right thumb contusion in early June, sidelining him for 28 games, and he was suspended for the final 65 games of the season by Major League Baseball for violation of the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Ramirez was limited to 92 games because of a sprained left knee that he initially suffered in Spring Training and finally became a big enough issue that he was placed on the DL. The knee is fine this spring, although his debut was delayed until March 7 as part of his recovery from January surgery to remove a polyp from his colon. The slugger has, however, appeared in seven games, and he is 9-for-18 with three doubles, a triple, five RBIs and two walks.
This year, it is a fresh start. Braun is healthy. Ramirez is healthy. The biggest question is who is going to hit leadoff. It most likely will come down to center fielder Carlos Gomez or shortstop Jean Segura, but there's also the chance of Rickie Weeks or Scooter Gennett, the candidates for second base.
At least they are healthy for now.
"I like to say there is a sixth tool, staying healthy," said Braun.
Braun has certainly shown what he can do when he stays relatively healthy. Over the first six years of his career, he ranked behind only Albert Pujols among Major League No. 3 hitters in home runs (193-191), had the edge on Pujols in RBIs (598-564), ranked fourth with a .313 batting average, and led No. 3 hitters in doubles and triples.
"I have been fortunate in my career to have special four-hole hitters behind me," said Braun. "I had Prince [Fielder] my first five years, and now Aramis. Both are tremendous cleanup hitters."
Braun's pretty good as a No. 3 hitter. He has hit in that spot in the order in all but 68 of his 930 starts, including all 147 starts in his NL MVP Award effort in 2011.
And it is more than merely having Braun and Ramirez hitting third and fourth. With those two available, it means Roenicke can slot other hitters into lineup spots they are more comfortable instead of being forced into trying to fill voids.
"I know teams are going to have to respect for this year's lineup," Braun said. "The more depth the better. [Lucroy] has a good chance to hit fifth. And with [Weeks], [Mark] Reynolds, [Lyle] Overbay, and Khris Davis hitting [No.] 6-7-8, they all have 25-30-home run potential.
"Depth like that makes it more difficult for the other team to navigate through the lineup."
There is, however, one caveat.
"The key is staying on the field, getting 600 plate appearances, playing 150-plus games," said Braun.
That's something that was missing in Milwaukee a year ago.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.