Brewers optimistic Ryan Braun is making progress after thumb procedure

The Milwaukee Brewers won't know for sure until Ryan Braun starts playing on at least a semiregular basis in spring training, but all parties are optimistic about the procedure he underwent after the 2014 season to treat a nagging thumb injury.

"He has taken some batting practice off a pitcher," said general manager Doug Melvin. "It's not like he's playing every day. You're not going to get a good feel and judgment on it until then, when you're playing every day, seven days a week, taking BP and all that. That's the true test.

"But, right now, it sounds like everything is great. He's just going to let it go through the normal healing process."

Braun had trouble gripping a bat dating to early 2013 because of an inflamed nerve at the base of his right thumb. The week after the 2014 regular season, he underwent a cryotherapy at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles during which subzero temperatures were introduced into the damaged nerve.

A few days later, Braun swung a bat with encouraging results. He has taken limited batting practice since without feeling the discomfort that led to a significant drop in offensive production.

Braun, who turns 31 in two weeks, dealt with the problem in the first half of the season and batted .298 with 11 home runs and 52 runs batted in over 73 games. The issue grew worse in the second half and he slipped to .226 with eight homers and 29 RBI in 62 games after the all-star break.

When the free-falling Brewers needed him most in September, Braun hit .210 with one homer, five RBI and a .603 OPS. Overall, he batted .266 with a .324 on-base average and 19 home runs, all significantly below his career averages for a full season. His 81 RBI led the club.

Braun was a far cry from the offensive superstar who averaged 34 home runs and 107 RBI while batting .313 over a six-year period from 2007-'12.

Because Braun was unable to control his bat path as in the past, he lost plate discipline and confidence, walking only 41 times with 113 strikeouts.

In an interview a few days before the season ended, Braun explained how the thumb issue affected his swing.

"When you can't use your top hand as a baseball player, it drastically alters everything that you do," Braun said. "I've tried to adjust; I've tried to find a way to deal with it the best I could.

"At times I've been OK. But for the most part it's been really difficult, really challenging and very frustrating."

The Brewers have a huge financial stake in Braun being able to return to his previous form as a hitter. After next season, during which he has a $12 million salary, a five-year, $105 million extension kicks in that carries through 2020, with a mutual option for 2021 worth at least $15 million more.

That financial commitment is huge for the club even if Braun is productive. If he is not, it becomes an albatross that would make it more difficult for the Brewers to compete.

The Brewers and Braun considered other possible fixes for the thumb before settling on cryotherapy, a procedure with no real track record for helping with that type of injury. Now, everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that it will prove to be effective over the long term.

"It seems to be better," said Melvin. "He'll wait until January to start swinging the bat more often."

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