Ryan Braun's reputation has been forever tarnished.
Any time his name is mentioned, we will recall his 2013 suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. Most of all, we'll remember how Braun lied following a positive test in October 2011 -- and how, instead of admitting guilt, he tried to take down the collector of the urine samples, Dino Laurenzi Jr.
Braun knows this. He also knows the only thing he can to do to alter our thinking -- at least in some small way -- is come back this season, at age 30, and be the same player he was from 2007-12.
If he doesn't, the consequences will be huge. Most of us will believe, fair or not, that he gained much of his success -- which includes the 2007 National League Rookie of the Year, the 2011 NL MVP and five consecutive Silver Sluggers -- from performance-enhancing drugs.
If Braun comes back this season and mashes, we won't forget his tarnished past. But we'll also give him credit for producing while we can only assume he's clean, since he would be risking the rest of his career by using PEDs again.
This spring, Braun has been his 2007-12 self.
He has six hits in his first seven at-bats in spring training, with four runs scored, two homers, three RBI, two walks and no strikeouts.
After the furor that followed his suspension, it's easy to forget how terrific he was in his first six big-league seasons. Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera were more imposing forces in that span, but Braun might have had the best across-the-board numbers in the game.
From 2007-12, he:
- Had at least 25 home runs each season.
- Hit 32 or more homers five times.
- Had at least 97 RBI each year, and drove in 103 runs or more in five of six seasons.
- Batted .304 or better five times.
- Had an OPS of .866 or higher in all six campaigns.
- Stole at least 14 bases each year.
Braun's season averages from 2007-12: a .313 average, 102 runs, 34 homers, 107 RBI and 21 steals.
Will he come close to that production this season?
My guess is he will surprise many people and do just that.
I wouldn't expect Braun to hit 34 homers, but an average above .300 with 25-plus homers, 90-plus RBI and 15 steals seems realistic.
Would that be enough to wash away the stench?
But it would at least provide a little fresh air for a player who desperately needs some.
No, you say?
I would have agreed, until I read this ESPN piece by former Reds general manager Jim Bowden.
Bowden estimated that Mike Trout, who isn't even eligible for arbitration until next season, would command a total of $66 million in arbitration from 2015 to '17. He then guessed that if the Angels were to buy out some of Trout's free-agent seasons in a long-term extension, he could receive salaries between $32 million (2018-20) and $35 million (2021-24).
That's a 10-year total of $302 million, and the Angels would have Trout under contract for the next 11 seasons.
After reading Bowden's analysis, I went back to this About Baseball breakdown of the biggest contracts in baseball history.
Alex Rodriguez has signed the two most lucrative deals in MLB history -- a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers in 2001 and, once he renegotiated that deal as a member of the Yankees, a 10-year, $275 million deal in 2008.
When Rodriguez signed his first mega-deal, he was only 25. The second -- much (much, much, much) more questionable -- contract was agreed to when A-Rod was 32.
Trout is 22.
He will be 33 -- the age Rodriguez turned on July 27, 2008, the first year of his $275 million contract -- when the 2024 season ends.
He has played two full major-league seasons and another 40 games as a 19-year-old rookie in 2011.
His 162-game averages are a .314 batting average, 30 homers, 95 RBI, 41 steals and 124 runs -- with a ridiculous .948 OPS.
In the last two seasons, he has batted .326 and .323 with norms of 29 homers, 90 RBI, 41 stolen bases and 119 runs.
He's young, he's reliable, he's driven and he's a stud.
What's that worth to a marquee team that is competing with the Dodgers for headlines in Los Angeles?
How does $300 million sound?
At first, it seemed nuts.
Now, not so much.
Should a closer -- even the best one in the game -- be paid $10 million per year?
The easy answer would seem to be "not unless we're talking about Mariano Rivera," but Jonathan Papelbon changed that when he signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies in November 2011.
Strictly using Papelbon as an example, the Braves seemed to do pretty well for themselves when they signed 25-year-old closer Craig Kimbrel to a four-year, $42 million extension last week.
Kimbrel will make salaries of $11 million and $13 million in 2016 and 2017, and the deal could be for five years and $54 million if a $13 million option for 2018 (which includes a $1 million buyout) is exercised.
How good is Kimbrel?
So good he seems worth every penny. And so good he now has the second-largest contract for a closer in baseball history.
Papelbon, meanwhile, could turn his $50 million contract into a five-year, $63 million deal. To make the latter numbers materialize, the Phillies' closer has to finish 55 games in 2015 or a combined 100 games in 2014 and '15. If he does, he'll automatically vest a $13 million option for the 2016 season.
Papelbon has saved 67 games and appeared in 131 contests in two years with Philadelphia.
If you're thinking it's a shame Papelbon, and not Mariano Rivera, has the largest contract for a closer in MLB history, don't feel too sorry for the best relief pitcher we've ever seen.
Rivera never had a $50 million contract, but he made at least $10.5 million each season from 2003 until he retired following the 2013 season. From 2008-12, he made a combined $74.9 million, and according to his Baseball Reference page, he reeled in more than $169 million in salaries during his career.
Kimbrel might never reach that level, but he has been even more dominant than Rivera in his prime the last two seasons.
In 2012 and '13, Kimbrel saved 92 games in 99 chances. In that span, he has a 1.11 ERA and posted WHIPs of 0.65 and 0.88. He also has struck out 214 batters in 129 2/3 innings -- an average of 14.9 K's per nine innings that is 6.7 above Rivera's career norm.
He's so great I almost re-examined my stance on when to take a closer in fantasy baseball.
He's so great that paying him a shade under $11 million per year for five years seems like a steal.
Updated fantasy baseball rankings
The Oakland Athletics, somewhat improbably, have won a combined 190 games the last two seasons.
This offseason, they gave Scott Kazmir $22 million in free agency, extended Coco Crisp for two years and $22.75 million, and traded for the likes of Jim Johnson (who will make $10 million in 2014) and Luke Gregerson ($5.065 million).
The A's clearly believe they can advance past the Division Series, something they failed to do in each of the last two postseasons.
They also might be trying to keep up with -- at least in their own small way -- the Rangers, Angels and Mariners.
The Rangers signed Shin-Soo Choo for $130 million and traded for Prince Fielder and the majority of what remains of his $214 million contract.
The Angels are trying to bounce back after failing to make the playoffs in each of Albert Pujols' first two years in Los Angeles, and the Mariners broke the bank to sign Robinson Cano.
What's it all mean?
The division should have three or four playoff contenders this season. (Sorry, Astros, but, hey, it's nice to see your payroll top $30 million this season.)
We take a quick look at the loaded AL West and much more in this spring training primer.
Players to watch, teams to watch, stories to watch -- and no Alex Rodriguez.
It's that time of year.
Who knows, maybe it will even stop snowing one of these weeks.
When my friend and former colleague Scott Kendrick ranked the best shortstops in history for this site in 2009, he placed Derek Jeter third all-time at shortstop -- behind Honus Wagner and Alex Rodriguez.
On ESPN Radio this week, analyst Tim Kurkjian said many in the sabremetrics community would rank Arky Vaughn -- a little-known, at least in 2014, former Pirates and Dodgers standout who died in a boating accident at age 40 in 1952 -- ahead of Jeter. Kurkjian went on say he believed Jeter, who announced this week that he will retire after the 2014 season, should be No. 2 all-time at short.
I don't know how you could argue otherwise.
Wagner is the undisputed No. 1.
The player with the most famous baseball card in history batted .329 with 722 stolen bases, eight batting titles and 101 home runs (an achievement considering his entire career was spent in the dead ball era) in 21 seasons.
Many experts believe Rodriguez ranks second in history in short, but at this point in his career, he's played almost as many games at third base (1,189) as he has shortstop (1,272).
There's no doubt that if you ignore his history with steroids, A-Rod has compiled the most impressive offensive numbers of any shortstop ever -- .299, 654 homers, 322 steals and a .942 OPS.
But how can you ignore the steroids? And the fact he played half of his career at the hot corner?
Vaughn's batting numbers are sensational. He batted .318 with an .859 OPS. But he missed three years because of World War II, limiting him to 2,103 career hits. He never had 200 hits in a season, he had more than 78 RBI four times in 14 seasons and he reached double figures in homers twice.
The more telling number: Vaughn played in all of three postseason games.
Jeter, meanwhile, has five rings, has batted .308 with an .838 OPS in the postseason and is the best fielder of the bunch.
Then there are these offensive numbers:
- Jeter has batted .312 with 256 homers, 348 steals and an .828 OPS.
- He's hit at least 18 homers seven times in 19 seasons, and stolen 20 bases or more in eight seasons.
- Jeter had 102 RBI in 1999 and 97 RBI in 2006.
- In a nine-year span from 2004-12, Jeter won five Gold Gloves and five Silver Sluggers.
- He has had 200 hits or more hits eight times, and scored at least 100 runs in 13 of his 19 years.
- His 162-game averages: 16 homers, 79 RBI, 22 steals and 117 runs.
Clutch. Gold Glover. Excellent hitter with some pop and decent speed.
I'm on Team Kurkjian.
The Captain's all-time ranking at shortstop matches the number on the back of his pinstriped jersey.
Is Robinson Cano a top-five overall pick in fantasy baseball? (Don't worry, you don't have to commit $24 million a year from your fake payroll.)
Hanley Ramirez or Troy Tulowitzki?
Is third base as weak as it seems this year?
We answer those questions and much more with our 2014 fantasy rankings.
The latter "position" gives us a reason to rank David Ortiz No. 1. Otherwise, you wouldn't find him anywhere except our top 200 overall, which will be posted soon (once I decide whom to rank third, after Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera).
ESPN says Andrew McCutchen is No. 3. I might prefer Paul Goldschmidt. Or Clayton Kershaw. Maybe Carlos Gonzalez.
This much I do know nine days into February: It's a very good year to have the first or second overall pick. Otherwise, you might be better off drafting late in Round 1.
Enjoy the rankings, and remember, pitchers and catchers already are reporting to spring training.
Depending on where you live, that's a welcome sign during a winter that has dragged on longer than any drama involving Alex Rodriguez.
Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann received a combined $608 million in free agency this offseason.
That is more than $40 million above the combined payrolls of nine major-league teams in 2013 -- the Royals, Twins, Rockies, Padres, Pirates, Athletics, Rays, Marlins and Astros.
Clearly, there remains quite a market for the elite free agents.
But the second-tier free agents -- such as pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, outfielder Nelson Cruz, shortstop Stephen Drew and designated hitter/first baseman Kendrys Morales -- tend to suffer more now because any team that chooses to sign them would have to give up a top draft pick.
Earlier this week, ESPN's Buster Olney referred to that as the "Dead Zone" -- a free agent who isn't among the elite in his class and has had his value damaged by the draft pick that is tied to him like a Prince Fielder-sized anchor.
That didn't hurt Robinson Cano because he was the best player on the market. Plus, he had Jay Z on his side.
But it doesn't do any favors to players such as Jimenez, who was outstanding for the Indians after the 2013 All-Star break. Jimenez, who turned down a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Tribe, was 6-5 with a 1.82 ERA in the second half last season. In that span, he struck out 100 batters in 84 innings.
Teams seem hesitant, however, to pay big money for a 30-year-old pitcher who has been inconsistent since his monster 2010 season (19-8, 2.88 ERA and 214 strikeouts for the Rockies). In 2011, Jimenez was 10-13 with a 4.68 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. He was much worse the following year, going 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA and 1.61 WHIP for the Tribe.
The same goes for Santana, who was effective for the Royals in 2013 (9-10, 3.24 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 161 Ks).
Santana has been every bit as up-and-down as Jimenez. He has won 16 games or more three times -- all in even years (2006, 2008 and 2010). He was much better than his 11-12 record would indicate in 2011, compiling a 3.38 ERA and 178 Ks.
Then there were the 2007 (7-14, 5.76 ERA), 2009 (8-8, 5.03) and 2012 seasons (9-13, 5.16).
All of which puts Jimenez and Santana in the second tier of free agents -- aka the "Dead Zone."
As Kyle Lohse proved last season, there are ways out even for second-tier pitchers who have a draft pick tied to their free agency.
The Brewers waited until late March to sign Lohse to a three-year, $33 million contract last year. In so doing, they surrendered the 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft, and helped the Cardinals gain the 28th overall selection.
Lohse was 34 at the time -- more than four years older than Jimenez is now.
Does that mean Jimenez and the 31-year-old Santana eventually will cash in as spring training begins and teams get more desperate for pitching?
But they won't get Cano money.
They probably won't receive half as much as McCann, who signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the Yankees. They might not even get into Lohse territory.
As the second-tier free agents continue to linger longer on the market each year, we should expect the players' association to try everything in its power to relax the draft-pick compensation rules.
Power agent Scott Boras, who represents Morales and Drew, spoke out against the rules this week.
"This system is not good for the teams or the players," Boras told Fox Sports.
Well, it's good for some teams and some players.
But there is no doubt it has held down the values of players who fall into the second level of free agents.
If you're a Denver Broncos fan, the only thing that could cure your Super Bowl Sunday hangover would be if you took the over, bet that there would be a safety scored on the first play from scrimmage and told a friend with whom you always battle for bragging rights that the halftime show would be infinitely better than the game.
Wait, check that. Your day could only get much better if you did all of the above and thought to yourself, "Boy, I'm ready for fantasy baseball."
Well, we have a deal for you.
About Baseball is back with our 2014 fantasy baseball rankings.
In the coming weeks, we'll break down the best players at the other positions, rank the top 200 players overall and give you some draft-day sleepers and busts.
If you're a fantasy baseball junkie, keep coming back to this page.
Unlike Super Bowl XLVIII, we will deliver.
Think Joe Namath -- and the fur coat that almost broke Twitter.
It was a landmark announcement for Major League Baseball.
Beginning during spring training in February, its pitchers can wear padded caps to protect themselves from brain injuries.
It seems like a necessary step, especially after five big-league pitchers were struck in the head by a line drive in a five-month stretch between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, according to ESPN.
The problem for MLB: The poster child for the redesigned caps -- Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy -- told ESPN's Jayson Stark he won't wear the bulkier hats.
McCarthy told Stark the caps -- which are seven ounces heavier than the traditional 3- or 4-ounce MLB hat -- weren't "major-league ready. They are "too big" and "too hot," said the pitcher who, while playing for Oakland, suffered an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion and a skull fracture when he was hit in the head by a liner on Sept. 5, 2012.
Pitchers are creatures of habit.
Many are maniacal in sticking to a routine, and any change often is met with resistance. For them, this would be a huge switch.
The new caps are a little more than half an inch thicker in the front and one inch thicker on the sides. The more important number is they can provide protection on line drives of up to 85 mph.
But if major-league pitchers won't wear them -- especially the ones who have already suffered major injuries after taking a line drive off their head -- then it's back to the drawing board.
It's much too early to know for sure, but the early reaction to the new hats has been positive in that players know safety is becoming increasingly more important. But the early reaction has been negative in the most critical aspect for the new technology: Pitchers don't seem open to donning the current version of the product manufactured by isoBlox.
"That's what I told them," McCarthy said to Stark. "I said I simply don't think anybody is going to wear them."
Hopefully, some pitchers will give it a try this season.
That's another thing about pitchers: If it works for one, or three, others are more open to the idea.
We've broken down the biggest contracts in baseball history.
Did you know that the Phillies still owe Ryan Howard $85 million?
Or that the Braves will pay B.J. Upton -- a .248 career hitter -- $46.35 million from 2015 to '17?
But let's not dwell on the negative.
How about this: Paul Goldschmidt -- who led the National League in home runs, RBI, OPS, slugging percentage and total bases last season -- is owed "only" $32 million, courtesy of a five-year extension he signed during spring training last year.
Early last season, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman wrote that a competing agent speculated Goldschmidt left as much as $75 million on the table by signing when he did.
That seems a little high, but, hey, so does the deal Carl Crawford signed in Boston prior to the 2011 season.
How large -- and how bad -- is Crawford's contract, you ask?
Check out our respective lists.
I'll let you guess on which one the Dodgers' nine-figure outfielder landed.
Actually, the Dodgers have two nine-figure outfielders.
I'll leave you with a hint: They are both on the same list.