Brewers hope Braun's left turn is right

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

MESA, Ariz. – His eyes are closed. The ball is over his head and long past his outstretched glove. And Ryan Braun is smiling, a grin of acknowledgment, perhaps, that anyone holding a camera and with a quick trigger finger is about to make him look foolish.

The photograph was snapped Feb. 21, four days into the experiment that moves Braun from third base to left field, and it's followed by another Flickr moment: Braun's torso leaning more to the left than Air America, his knees bent, his spikes askew and his right hand cocked as though it's begging the ball ricocheting off the outfield fence not to hit him in the face.

"We're still working on the wall," Ed Sedar acknowledged Tuesday, and he would know. He is the Milwaukee Brewers' outfield instructor, and Braun is his project this spring.

It's funny to Sedar, this whole tutoring exercise. Braun, after all, won the National League Rookie of the Year last season with one of the more incredible seasons ever posted by a greenhorn: In 113 games, he hit .324 with 34 home runs, 97 RBIs and slugged .634. The yang wasn't so pretty: His 26 errors led to an .895 fielding percentage, tied for the third worst among third basemen in the modern era.

So the Brewers, primed to contend in the NL Central they led for the majority of last season, decided to move Braun. It wasn't a difficult decision. The prospect of another Ringling Bros. show scared them. To do so with such haste, though, took some dexterity from general manager Doug Melvin, who called Braun in early January with the news.

The Brewers wanted to sign center fielder Mike Cameron, which meant Bill Hall – Sedar's charge from last spring, when he moved from a do-everything infield position to center field – would head back to third base. And that would force Braun into left field.

At the time, Braun was taking ground balls at Pepperdine University from his agent, Nez Balelo. Braun's phone rang. Then Balelo's. Braun's again and Balelo's, too, each with a 414 area code. It would be good for the team, Melvin said, and good for Braun, and – well, it would just be good.

"And I picked up my glove," Braun said, "and started taking fly balls."

It's a romantic story, the kid embracing his new position with nary a moan, but it fits.

"He gets it," Balelo said. "He's a level-headed player. He understands if Doug and (manager) Ned (Yost) and the rest feel him going to left field is what's best, that's what he needs to do. He got a taste of being in the race."

Braun never really liked third base anyway. He moved there after two seasons playing shortstop at the University of Miami, a position that more resembles outfield with its necessity for ranginess.

Granted, outfield is Gollum to shortstop's Grendel, an entirely different beast with different challenges. Braun needs to learn the correct routes to balls off the bats of right-handed hitters versus lefties, how to deal with the wind, when to hit cutoff men and how to deal with the sun – which, as the photographs showed, he had yet to master, as his sunglasses rested atop his cap.

"It's definitely not easy," Braun said, "but I'm ahead of where I planned on being. So many factors come into play, and especially here. It's an extremely high sky. Most days there isn't a cloud. And the sun is directly in the eyes of the left fielder.

"If I'm able to figure out left field here, I think I'll be all right in Milwaukee."

Sedar kept his notes and schedule from last season with Hall and has followed them with Braun, and most of the plays haven't been of the Three Stooges variety. In Tucson, Braun played a ball off the wall with aplomb. Another game, he cut off a ball down the left-field line and limited the hitter to a single. Even though the scorekeeper charged Braun with his first error of the spring for a throw Tuesday against the Cubs, both Sedar and Yost said the throw was perfect and should have been fielded by shortstop J.J. Hardy or second baseman Rickie Weeks.

"Name me one reason why he can't (succeed in left)." Yost said. "He's tremendously athletic, he's got a great arm, he's got great range, he's got good speed. Of course he can. That's a no brainer."

Yost spoke with such passion, such conviction, Rawlings might as well mint Braun a Gold Glove now. And yet those qualities are the same ones teams look for in third basemen, and the Brewers thought so much of Braun's athleticism and arm and range and speed they moved him to left.

No matter, at least to Braun. He chewed on a Red Vine and chugged a Gatorade about 15 minutes after hammering a run-scoring single up the middle, his fourth RBI in five spring games, then dismissed the idea of the switch not working.

Braun is cocksure, if nothing else, and it might be off-putting were it not merited.

"I'm letting my instincts and athleticism take over," he said. "I've got a good work ethic. I always believe in myself. And I feel like I'm a pretty good athlete. So I want to let things take care of themselves."

And they will. For better, the Brewers hope, because the last thing they need is another chorus of flashbulbs firing toward left field.

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