Healthy Braun back where Counsell expected

After 2016 trade rumors -- and fresh off rehab-free offseason -- slugger enters '17 in Crew's lineup

Healthy Braun back where Counsell expected

With Spring Training fast approaching, will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Brewers squad each day this week. Today's topic: How's Your Star?

MILWAUKEE -- The two National League Central teams in transition find themselves with star players in similar spots.

Joey Votto of the Reds and Ryan Braun of the Brewers each garnered votes in last year's National League MVP race and are previous winners of the award. Both are on long-term contracts (Braun through at least 2020 and Votto through '23). When Braun surpasses 10 years of Major League service in May, both will have full no-trade rights. Both will turn 34 in 2017.

Outlook: Braun, LF, MIL

The Brewers face the same complicated questions as the Reds: Will the face of the franchise defy Father Time long enough to still be a force when the club emerges from its rebuild and is ready to contend? And should he be, or would finding a trade now speed up that very process?

30 stars ready to shine bright in 2017

The Brewers nearly did find a trade partner for Braun last August, when they came close to a swap with the Dodgers. According to a source, the deal would have netted Milwaukee outfielder Yasiel Puig, pitcher Brandon McCarthy and two prospects. It was a moment of opportunity for both clubs, since the Dodgers badly wanted a right-handed bat and the Brewers were less than a month removed from trading catcher Jonathan Lucroy in their latest big players-for-prospects move. But the sides could not finalize an agreement, and that window of opportunity closed.

Braun enters the season with four guaranteed years and $76 million left on his contract. Until May, the Brewers can trade him to one of six clubs, mostly on the West Coast, without his consent. After he reaches 10 years of service, five with his current team, Braun will have veto rights over any trade.

"I expected Ryan to be back, as I said over and over," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "I expected Ryan to hit third, and I'm very happy that I get to continue writing his name. But I thought I would always continue to write his name third in the lineup.

"He played at a high level last year. He's going to play at a high level this year. It's what he's done, and I think it's what he'll continue to do."

Braun hit .305/.365/.538 with 30 home runs, his best marks in all of those categories since he was runner-up to Buster Posey in NL MVP balloting in 2012. Braun's production was especially significant because he was coming off surgery to relieve a bulging disc in his back, and he entered Spring Training with some uncertainty about whether he would be able to carry a regular workload. Also present were concerns about the nerve issue in Braun's right hand, which had troubled the slugger in previous seasons.

Braun and Counsell navigated those issues by building in scheduled days off, and Braun didn't miss a game with a serious injury in 2016. Notably, he entered the offseason without any physical restrictions for the first time in years, which Braun believes bodes well for his prospects in 2017 and beyond.

"Having gone through a couple offseasons of doing physical therapy and rehabbing from an injury, it makes me that much more appreciative of it and gives me greater perspective on how fortunate I am to go through a healthy offseason and be able to do everything I want to do," he said. "I just feel better -- stronger, faster, more explosive. I feel really good."

Braun, the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year, is the longest-tenured Brewer by a wide margin -- Wily Peralta, who debuted in 2012, is next -- and he is the only player left from Milwaukee's NL Championship Series club in 2011.

"It's scary how fast that happens -- how fast I went from being the young guy to the mentor guy," Braun said.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.