Ryan Braun’s return puts Brewers on good footing in NL Central

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In doing the Brewers’ edition of running down the rosters earlier this month, I presented two lineups: one with Ryan Braun and one without him for the 50 games he appeared likely to miss pending the appeal of his PED suspension.

Needless to say, the one with the exonerated 2011 NL MVP looked a whole lot better:

2B Rickie Weeks -R
CF Nyjer Morgan – L
LF Ryan Braun – R
3B Aramis Ramirez – R
RF Corey Hart – R
1B Mat Gamel – L
C Jonathan Lucroy – R
SS Alex Gonzalez – R

Sure, Prince Fielder to Ramirez is quite a downgrade in the cleanup spot, but Ramirez did hit .306/.361/.510 for the Cubs last year, showing he’s still viable there. If Mat Gamel hits, that’s a pretty solid group. And if he doesn’t, there are usually first basemen available cheap as the summer goes on.

Without Braun, the Brewers looked like the NL Central’s third-best team in paper. Sure, the Cardinals lost an even better player than Fielder in Albert Pujols, but they also gained Adam Wainwright and Carlos Beltran. The Reds finished 17 games behind the Brewers last season, but they have the better offense and a pitching staff that should be much improved with Mat Latos in the rotation and Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson finishing games.

Now the NL Central race looks pretty even again. Advanced statistics will say that losing Braun for 50 games shouldn’t have meant more than two or maybe three extra losses in the first two months. However, sometimes there’s just no digging out of that early hole, and with the Brewers already over-budget, there probably aren’t going to be any big summer acquisitions if the team finds itself hovering around .500.