It’s possible not to have noticed Ryan Braun last season, but the 32-year-old had a pretty good year. He hit 30 homers, put up a 133 wRC+, and produced just over three wins. There was some talk during the season that Braun might be traded, and a trade that would have sent Yasiel Puig to Milwaukee might have been close. At the time, trading Braun made a lot of sense for the Brewers: the club was firmly situated in a rebuilding stage and Braun’s represented the only big contract remaining on the team’s payroll. While he played well down the stretch, Braun’s trade value has declined nonetheless: he’ll now be another year older, his future production will be worth considerably less than his present, and there’s a glut of bat-first players available on the market.
If Ryan Braun were a free agent, he would be one of the more sought after players available. Consider Braun’s 2016 stat line compared to those produced by two of the best hitters to hit free agency this year.
Cespedes signed with the Mets for $110 million, costing the Mets a compensation draft pick in the process. Edwin Encarnacion has reportedly turned down four years and $80 million. Ryan Braun now has four years and $76 million left on his contract, although $14 million of that amount is deferred interest-free, putting the actual value of the contract closer to $65 million or $70 million in the way we normally think of guaranteed contracts. Braun is two years older than Cespedes, but is one year younger than Encarnacion, and can actually play in the outfield. While Braun isn’t a particularly good defender, saving a few less runs than average in a corner-outfield spot makes his bat playable out there.
While Braun does have a limited no-trade clause, any team that would presumably be in the market for a player like Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo would presumably also be interested in Ryan Braun given his slightly cheaper contract. If we compared, for example, Braun’s deal to a potential $80 million deal for Encarnacion, we could easily make an argument that equivalent value would be in the range of a back-end top-100 prospect for the difference in cost — and another prospect close to that level for not having to concede a first-round pick the next season. Two prospects and total freedom from the $76 million owed to Braun would have been a pretty good return as a part of the Brewers rebuild.
Of course, Encarnacion didn’t sign for $80 million, and he still hasn’t signed for any other amount, either. In addition to Encarnacion and Trumbo, Jose Bautista, Chris Carter, Brandon Moss, and Mike Napoli all remain available as free agents. Jay Bruce and Carlos Gonzalez are presumably available in trade, as well. While one could make a case that Braun is the best player of that group — and is considerably better than some of those alternatives — shelling out $76 million for Braun makes a lot less sense when there are so many other options available.
The market this offseason — and it wasn’t been much better at the most recent trade deadline or last offseason — has served to lower Braun’s potential trade value. His natural age-related decline will likely cause it to decline even further. Braun’s projections for next season aren’t great. Our depth charts give him a 116 wRC+ and 1.9 WAR for the season. Much of the previous analysis in this post discussed Braun’s market value relative to similar players. Looking at his future value on the field, we can determine his value relative to his contract. If those projections are accurate, Milwaukee is in trouble.
If Braun is worth 1.9 WAR in 2017 and has normal, age-related decline, he’s going to run a $20-plus million deficit relative to the amount the Brewers will be paying him.
|2017||33||1.9||$8.5 M||$16.1 M|
|2018||34||1.4||$8.9 M||$12.5 M|
|2019||35||0.9||$9.4 M||$8.4 M|
|2020||36||0.4||$9.8 M||$3.9 M|
Value: $8.5M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)
So, the Brewers have a decision to make. They could opt to carry Braun’s contract. It never exceeds $20 million, a decent chunk is deferred, and they have no other long-term obligations weighing them down. So it might not be a disaster. And there’s also the real possibility that the projections are too pessimistic. Consider: last year at this time, Braun’s projections looked a lot like this year’s projections do — despite the fact that he’d recorded a similar 130 wRC+ in 2015. Braun’s 2016 exceeded his projections; if he were to do the same thing this year, he’d be well on his way to producing nearly as much value as he’ll be paid for the rest of his deal. To break even, Braun would need to record about 7.5 WAR over the next four years, starting at about 2.5 WAR in 2017, losing half a win each year thereafter.
I looked at some comps for Braun based on the seven wins and 125 wRC+ he recorded from his age-30 through age-32 seasons. The result is mostly boom or bust for similar players in their age-33 campaigns. There were guys who performed well like Brian Downing, David Justice, and Josh Willingham. There are also replacement-level types like Jermaine Dye, Cliff Floyd, and Luke Scott. Removing Braun’s ugly age-30 season and focusing on comps for ages 31 and 32 produces a collection of 16 players. They averaged 2.0 WAR at age 33, with half of the group exceeding 2.4 WAR. From age 33 through 36, that group averaged 6.6 WAR — not too far from the break-even point of the contract — with seven of the 16 players at or exceeding 8.0 WAR.
To imagine a scenario in which Braun records 2.5 WAR next season doesn’t require much of a stretch, but the issue with trading him is that almost all of the surplus value Braun is likely to provide over the course of his contract is likely to occur in 2017. Assuming the Brewers can’t trade him now — and market forces appear to be pushing against that — the team has to rely on (a) Braun producing another good year, (b) the trade market getting better at the deadline (i.e. fewer decent options), (c) finding a club that will accept both Braun’s present value and future burden, and (d) Braun agreeing to whatever agreement the Brewers reach.
That scenario is plausible, but it isn’t entirely likely. The Brewers didn’t necessarily make a poor decision this past season by not trading Braun, as it certainly seems like many teams and players have misjudged what the market would be for players like him this offseason. They might wish they’d traded him, however, if they actually did have a realistic opportunity to do so. They likely wish they hadn’t given him a contract extension that began just last season, but that decision’s now a half-dozen years old. Braun is still a decent bet to be worth or come pretty close to the value of the rest of his contract, but for a team needing value past 2017, Braun’s production this season and likely lack of production after next season isn’t likely to do the team much good in the rebuilding process.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.