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Point/Counterpoint: Ryan Braun, First-Rounder?

Ryan Braun is a divisive guy: some see him as an elite talent ready to retake the league by storm after a lost year…others see a player returning from injury, disappointing play, and…oh yeah, a huge PED suspension.

So, which side are you on? Taking Braun with your first pick…or leaving the risk till later or someone else’s team. Our team tackles both sides of the debate.

Alex: I’ll take Braun in the first, no question. There are two reasons: Braun…and everybody else.

Braun’s last season was just about as rough as it gets, I’ll admit. To be honest, though, I don’t see the problems he faced carrying over into this season. First of all, it seems pretty likely that he was playing hurt when things were so rough last year with his thumb injury. I’m no medical expert, but it doesn’t take one to suspect that that was probably the reason behind his disappointing performance. Unless I hear the thumb is healthy, I’m feeling pretty confident about his hitting.

But what about the PED’s? How good can he be without the juice? I guess it all depends on how much credit you’re willing to give steroids and other performance enhancing chemicals. Me, not much. It seems to me that they can add to the talent that’s already there—PED’s might have given Braun the edge, but they didn’t make him a superstar. And yeah, I’ll bet my first round pick on that.

With all the drama of the last year, it’s easy to overlook just how good Ryan Braun really has been. But let’s not—here’s his batting line from 2010-2012:

.318 AVG/.384 OBP/.563 SLG, 99 HR, 318 R, 326 RBI, 77 SB

Given the mulligan for 2013, and you’re talking about a first pick type of player, not just a first rounder.

One caveat is that his base stealing really fell off last year, and that probably isn’t due to the thumb injury. I’m willing to think of him as a four category monster in between the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto, rather than a Mike Trout comparable or a souped-up Andrew McCutchen.

That’s still a first-rounder for me.

Beyond Braun’s personal greatness, there’s the fact that other potential first-rounders come with pretty serious questions. After the (mostly) consensus top four (Cabrera, Trout, McCutchen, and Paul Goldschmidt), plus Robinson Cano, I’m not sold on anyone else as a lock for the first round pick. What’s more, there is a big group of players towards the end of the first round that strongly resemble the players taken in the second round—Adrian Beltre just isn’t that different to Evan Longoria. Sure Carlos Gonzalez is better than Carlos Gomez—but much less healthy. Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion are both great. Clayton Kershaw is an awesome pitcher—but so are Yu Darvish and Adam Wainwright.

Braun is one of the few players who stand significantly taller than the rest. That makes him well worth a first round selection.

Mark: I don't have an issue with Braun as a quality fantasy player, since if I'm picking at the top of the second round and he's still there, I'll happily snatch him up.  If I'm picking between 8th-12th in the first round of a 12-team draft, however, I definitely have some doubts, and you should always be as doubt-free as possible with your first round choice.

Call it the Smilex theory of fantasy baseball, based on the Joker's secret weapon in the 1989 Batman movie.  The ingredients of Smilex were mixed into several household products but the drug only became lethal when certain products were used together.  "Hairspray alone won't do it, but hairspray mixed with lipstick and perfume will be toxic and untraceable," as Bruce Wayne put it.  Likewise, no one of my nagging doubts about Braun would be enough (on their own) to stop me from taking him in the first round, but all of them in combination make me look elsewhere.

Braun is entering his age-30 season, the PED spectre is unavoidable, his stolen bases dried up and even though he still had an .869 OPS last season, his big power drop (a .200 ISO and only nine homers) combined with a drop in his line drive rate and a large rise in his ground ball rate all stand out as red flags.  Braun's thumb problem could excuse some of his issues at the plate, but all of these factors in combination won't, unlike Smilex, put a big grin on your face.

I also may have a lot more faith than Alex does in the crop of first-round candidates.  Trout, Cabrera, McCutchen, Goldschmidt and Cano are no-brainers to go ahead of Braun.  Kershaw is a cut above baseball's other aces so he's the one pitcher I'd comfortably take in the first round.  I'd slot Votto and Encarnacion ahead of Braun, plus I've got confidence that Chris Davis can put up another big year.  In a vacuum, Braun is a better player than Adam Jones, but Jones carries far fewer question marks.  Gonzalez's injury history worries me and Beltre turns 35 in April, but CarGo is a better five-tool threat than Braun and Beltre is showing no signs of slowing down, plus he's at a shallower position.  That's 12 players right there, and I'm not even getting into other candidates like Evan Longoria or Hanley Ramirez, who are reasonable first-round picks given their positions.

The later rounds are the time for making leaps of faith, but when it comes to your first-rounder, you want a guy who's going to be anchor your roster for an entire season.  I wouldn't at all be surprised if Braun bounces back for another elite season, but there are enough hints that he won't--so I'll let someone else take that risk with their first pick.

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