MILWAUKEE — To take the next step forward in their rebuilding project, the Milwaukee Brewers might need to part with their most recognizable player.
Ryan Braun could be a difference-maker in a lineup for a contender that can stomach his pricey contract. But Braun proved his worth after finishing the season healthy and becoming one of the top sluggers in the National League again.
Dealing Braun could net more young prospects for a farm system already teeming with talent.
Or Braun could stay in Milwaukee as a veteran presence to help take pressure off emerging hitters.
Whatever happens over the next few months, at least Braun won’t have to worry too much about back surgery or treatment for his right thumb, injuries that bothered him in recent offseasons.
“From Ryan’s perspective, I think he feels he’s going into the offseason in probably a better space than he’s gone in there in probably the last four or five years,” manager Craig Counsell said Sunday in Denver, where the Brewers beat Colorado 6-4 to end the season.
“That leads to him having a great winter and showing up in position to have another good year,” Counsell said.
It’s just unclear what uniform Braun will be wearing when spring training starts in February.
Braun just finished the first year of a five-year, $105 million extension signed in 2011. He hit .305 with 30 homers and 91 RBIs in 2016. It was his best season since his 65-game suspension in 2013 for violations of baseball’s drug agreement and labor contract.
A Los Angeles-area native, Braun came close to being shipped to the Dodgers at the trade deadline.
“I love having Ryan on the team and he’s been a huge contributor on the team and in the community,” owner Mark Attanasio said recently. “I call this his second hometown.”
Attanasio also likes the job that general manager David Stearns has done. Braun is the last regular remaining from the Brewers team that last made the playoffs in 2011, when Milwaukee lost to St. Louis in six games in the National League Championship Series.
“All of us understand the business side of what we do,” Braun said on Sept. 25 , when the Brewers finished their home schedule against Cincinnati . “It made the last couple weeks for me here a little more enjoyable because I kind of took the time to reflect on everything and really enjoy … in case they are my last.”
Other takeaways from this season for the Brewers:
The Brewers played hard and weathered more midseason deals that exported veterans to finish with a respectable 73 wins, five more than in 2015. Attanasio liked the direction that Stearns has steered the club, though the owner, like the general manager, remains wary of putting any timetable on the rebuilding project.
LONG VIEW AT SHORT
A day after dealing popular catcher Jonathan Lucroy and two top relievers at the trade deadline, the Brewers called up their top prospect, shortstop Orlando Arcia, from Triple-A Colorado Springs in early August. The timing was symbolic for a franchise in transition in a baseball-savvy town. The 22-year-old Arcia, known as a slick fielder, hit .219 with four homers and 17 RBIs, along with eight steals, in 55 games for a respectable debut.
WHIFFS AND WALKS
The Brewers struck out 1,543 times to set the major-league mark of 1,535 previously held by Houston (2013). Milwaukee also drew 599 walks, 187 more than the previous season, and raised its on-base percentage to .322, up 15 points.
“You can’t fix everything in one day. But the getting on base mindset — that’s important. We have to continue that,” Counsell said. “If some strikeouts went with that, I’m good with that. I’m really good with that.”
With 41 homers, first baseman Chris Carter tied with Colorado’s Nolan Arenado for most in the National League. Carter also led the NL in strikeouts with a franchise-record 206. Infielder Jonathan Villar finished tied for second in the NL with 174 strikeouts, but also led the majors with 62 stolen bases.
ON THE MOUND
Zach Davies (11-7, 3.97 ERA) emerged as a reliable starter after being called up in mid-April, leading the club with 15 quality starts. … Journeyman Junior Guerra (9-3, 2.81) may have found a home at Miller Park after joining the club in May. … Tyler Thornburg (8-5, 2.15 ERA, 13 saves) was lights-out for a six-week stretch as the closer after the club dealt Jeremy Jeffress before hitting a rough patch the last week of the season.
AP freelance writers Rich Rovito, Joe Totoraitis and Andrew Wagner contributed to this story.