Over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal reported that the possibility of Ryan Braun being traded “was becoming more realistic”, as Braun is off to a fantastic start to the 2016 season, and he’s starting to put some distance between himself and the BioGenesis scandal that cost him half the 2013 season and a good chunk of his reputation. Since the suspension, Braun hasn’t played up to his previously established levels of performance, and when combined with his contract and the baggage surrounding how he handled his failed test, he was mostly an immovable object.
But with Braun hitting .372/.443/.605 — yeah, that is heavily inflated by a .409 BABIP, but his early season strikeout rate is back in line with Peak Braun levels, and he can still hit the ball a long way — and only four guaranteed years left on his deal after this season, dealing Braun is starting to look like something that could happen. It’s almost a certainty that the Brewers will take on some of his remaining contract in any deal in order to get better talent in return, with the question of how much of the remaining ~$90 million they’ll keep on their books being settled depending on how well he keeps hitting and what other sluggers hit the market this summer.
Most logically, the Brewers should likely agree to pay the entirety of his remaining 2016 salary, so that any acquiring team is only picking up future payroll commitments; demand would likely increase if teams that were up against their in-season budget limitations could acquire Braun without moving the needle on their 2016 payroll. If you remove the 2016 dollars from the equation, Braun is only guaranteed $76 million from 2017 through 2020, though picking up the 2021 option for $15 million might make more sense than paying the $4 million buyout, as the $11 million difference in five years might not buy you anything better than a 37 year old Braun anyway.
If the option gets picked up, a team would be on the hook for 5/$87M in future commitments, plus whatever part of his 2016 season the Brewers wanted to shed. That means Braun’s remaining commitment beyond this year is in the range of what guys like Mike Leake got as a free agent last winter; you don’t have to think Braun is going to keep hitting this well to see that the contract isn’t that far underwater. So, with Braun showing that he’s got some life left in his bat, let’s help the Brewers find him a new home.
Dave Dombrowski spent most of his time in Detroit stacking his line-up with right-handed sluggers, so Braun certainly fits the type of player that he’s acquired in the past. And while Brock Holt has been solid enough as the left fielder to start the year, it seems pretty likely that Dombrowski is going to prefer an alternative plan that allows Holt to go back to his super-utility role, and Braun seems pretty likely to be the best left fielder on the market this summer. As a pull heavy right-hander, he could do a lot of damage in Fenway Park, and give the Red Sox the deepest lineup in the American League.
And the options for a deal with Boston extend beyond just shipping Braun and some portion of his contract to the Red Sox. The Brewers and Red Sox are natural trade partners on multiple fronts, and if the teams wanted to get together on a blockbuster, there appears to be a chance for them to make one big move that solves a bunch of problems all at once. With Blake Swihart already losing his job and potentially being moved out from behind the plate if he stays in Boston, Jonathan Lucroy would also make a good deal sense for Boston, and a Lucroy/Braun package could allow the Brewers to start asking for some interesting young players in exchange, rather than simply dumping salary.
Toss in the fact that the Brewers could also take back one of the Red Sox dead money contracts — either Rusney Castillo or Pablo Sandoval, or both if they wanted to get really crazy — and the options for a blockbuster get pretty interesting. Castillo could work as an offset for Braun’s contract if the teams would rather go that direction rather than having the Brewers continue to pay Braun after he leaves town, and potentially motivate the Red Sox to move a guy like Swihart in a deal that got them both Braun and Lucroy while moving Castillo’s deal. Toss in some secondary prospects to make it worth the Brewers time, and the Red Sox could load up for a strong run for the next few years, while the Brewers could give Swihart a real shot behind the plate to see if he can stick at catcher, while also adding some more youth to their rebuild.
The sticking point might be the rise of Andrew Benintendi, who looks like he could be Boston’s answer to Michael Conforto, getting to the big leagues in short order after being a first round pick last summer. The Sox could move Braun to DH next year to keep a spot open for Benintendi in 2017, but if they think he’s going to help them this year, then a Braun trade might not be on the table. But if they think he could use a full year in the minors, Braun would be a pretty interesting option for this year, and a capable Ortiz replacement for 2017 and beyond.
The AL’s other contender-named-after-footwear, the White Sox are off to a blistering 18-8 start to the season, primarily thanks to the dominance of Chris Sale and Jose Quintana at the front of their rotation. With an improved defense and some good arms, the White Sox are run-preventing their way to the top of the AL Central, but their offense is still kind of weak, even after importing Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie over the winter. Melky Cabrera looks like he’s bouncing back to provide some offense and Adam Eaton is continuing to show he’s one of the game’s more underrated assets, but with Jose Abreu in a bit of a slump, this team doesn’t have a lot of power right now.
The departure of Adam LaRoche in spring training freed up $13 million and the DH spot, but unfortunately for the White Sox, the only person they had around to fill the hole was Avisail Garcia, who shouldn’t be starting for a team trying to win. There might not be a contender in baseball who could benefit more from swapping out a current regular for Braun, since Garcia is basically a replacement level placeholder, and the White Sox have more in-season budget room than anyone else, given that they have LaRoche’s money to reallocate if they so choose. And adding 2-3 wins, on top of the lead they’ve already built, might be enough to give the Pale Hose the boost they need to hang on to the division and give Chris Sale a shot at playoff glory.
Of course, there are some reasons it wouldn’t work as well. The White Sox farm system isn’t great, especially after trading for Frazier, so they probably can’t offer the kinds of return in talent that Milwaukee might want. The White Sox offense also already leans too heavily to the right side, and they might be better off adding a left-handed hitter to make them a tougher match-up in October. But there isn’t a left-handed Ryan Braun out there, so the White Sox should at least kick the tires and find out if there’s a fit.
With an 18-7 record, things are going pretty well in the nation’s capital, and the Nationals can almost certainly contend for the NL East title even if they keep their roster as is. But with Stephen Strasburg in his walk year and the countdown to Bryce Harper’s free agency ticking away, the organization’s window isn’t going to be open forever, and the Nationals should be looking to maximize their chances of making a World Series run while they can. And as good as Harper and the pitching staff are, this team could use another hitter.
Jayson Werth (78 wRC+) and Ryan Zimmerman (74 wRC+) both look old, while Anthony Rendon’s power has gone completely missing. While the team will eventually get an offensive boost from swapping in Trea Turner for Danny Espinosa, and Ben Revere’s return will allow the team to stop giving Michael Taylor so many at-bats, this line-up is mostly the Harper and Daniel Murphy show, and when Murphy stops hitting like Babe Ruth, this team could have some problem scoring runs.
Braun would be a nice right-handed complement to Harper, allowing Werth to either become a part-time player or split time with Zimmerman at first base, giving Dusty Baker the option of playing the old guy who looks the least old by the time the playoffs roll around, and giving the team a slugger to hit behind Harper so that Murphy can hit higher in the order. The Nationals have the farm system to get the Brewers attention, and the fact that part of Braun’s contract is already deferred might make the deal a little more palatable to the Nationals owners, especially if Milwaukee picks up all of the remaining 2016 money.
But given that the team is winning and that acquiring Braun would take a veteran out of the line-up or force a position change, the Nationals might end up prefer something less drastic. I’d put them as a bit of a long-shot, but if the team really wants to take advantage of having Harper for a few more years, putting Braun behind him isn’t a terrible idea.
I expect the Angels will be linked to Braun until he’s traded but it’s not clear to me that the Angels are actually good enough to contend even with Braun, and they’ve already got a lot of dead money on the books to guys on the wrong side of 30.
The Dodgers could probably use and could definitely afford Braun, but Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi have spent their entire tenure in Los Angeles trying to get younger, not older. I don’t see them reversing course to take on Braun with Andre Ethier set to return at some point this summer.
The Indians outfield still stinks, but they’ve been refusing to spend money all winter, so no reason to expect them to suddenly find money to upgrade their roster now.
The Orioles need a left fielder and don’t care about outfield defense, but the narrative around their offseason pursuit of Dexter Fowler is that they wanted a leadoff hitter. My guess is that they’ll go for a different type of left fielder once they get tired of the Joey Rickard experiment.
Nori Aoki isn’t exactly crushing it in Seattle, but Jerry Dipoto just spent all winter moving the team away from right-handed sluggers and towards a speed-and-defense model; I wouldn’t plan on a pivot in his first year.
So, to me, it looks like the two Sox teams and the Nationals make the most sense. While his no-trade clause suggests that he’d like to end up on the west coast, the most natural fits are on the east coast and a few hours south of his current home.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.