Once Ryan Braun’s PED saga finally came to a close, his trade value was basically shot. Why would a team absorb his sizable contract when his performance may have been artificially inflated? At that point, the Brewers’ only choice was to hope Braun performed well enough to not be a total albatross. Trading Braun was a pipe dream, and still was as of even a couple months ago. Examining the situation now, though, shows that may no longer be the case.
The first and most obvious thing that needed to happen in order to make trading Braun a possibility was him actually performing. Braun needed to prove he is still a valuable player. This is both due to his PED suspension and his troublesome thumb condition which sapped his power in 2014.
Braun checked off this box. He hit .285/.356/.498 in 568 plate appearances, and his wOBA of .366 ranked 11th among qualified MLB outfielders. He was no longer at an MVP level, but this is certainly an “All-Star” level, which will work just fine. His right field defense continues to be brutal, and he should be switched back to left as soon as possible (a post for another day), but the point is he has regained much of his value. All things considered, 2015 needs to be considered a success for Braun.
The other challenge to trading Braun is his fairly hefty contract. Braun’s second contract extension, the one that unnecessarily locked him up past his mid 30s, seemed more like market value rather than any “hometown discount.” However, in the current free agent market, fair value is probably pretty appealing to some teams. Braun is owed $105 million over the next five years. There are some deferred payments, and he is technically never owed more than $15 mil in a season, but $105 million is the total amount that he has yet to be paid.
Let’s look at some current free agents who are fairly comparable to Ryan Braun and see how their price tag stacks up.
Jason Heyward just signed an 8 year $184 million deal. This is not the best comp for Braun, as Heyward is entering his age 26 season while Braun is entering his age 32 season. Additionally, much of Heyward’s value comes from his elite right field defense, while all of Braun’s value comes from his bat. There are better comps out there, such as…
Alex Gordon. Gordon is the same age as Braun, which makes him a better comp. Gordon did not qualify last year due to a shortage of plate appearances, but if he had, his wOBA of .351 would’ve tied him for 16th among outfielders. With Gordon, wOBA doesn’t tell the whole story, though. While quantifying defense and its exact value remains controversial, Gordon is seen as an excellent corner outfielder. With his defense factored in, Gordon is arguably very close to Braun in terms of value (it’s important to remember that Gordon’s defense is unlikely to remain elite as he moves into his mid-late 30s).
Gordon remains unsigned, but Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors projects him to receive, coincidentally, a 5-year, $105 million deal–the same amount currently owed to Braun.
Gordon is likely the best comp, but there are a couple others who are similar enough. Justin Upton’s wOBA of .340 ranked 23rd among qualified outfielders, although that mark is the lowest of his career. Upton is entering his age 28 season, so he should naturally have more value than Braun, but Dierkes projects a 7-year, $147 million deal for Upton. That seems a bit too rich for my taste. Unlike Heyward or Gordon, Upton is not a great outfielder, and while he is younger than Braun, he’s not been the same level of offensive player. Given the contracts, I’d argue Braun is the better value.
The final free agent comp to Braun is Yoenis Cespedes, who made a lot of headlines tearing it up with the Mets over the last couple months of the season. It’s likely he capitalizes on that torrid end to the season, but suitors shouldn’t expect that level of production over the course of his contract; Cespedes has always been a high SLG, low OBP-type hitter. He does play a solid corner outfield spot (his cannon arm is well publicized), but he’s also older than you may realize, entering his age 30 season. I could see the argument for valuing him more highly than Braun, but I do think it’s at least a viable discussion. Dierkes projects a 6-year, $140 million contract for Cespedes, and at that price point, give me Braun at 5-105 all day.
So. What’s this all mean as far as Braun’s trade value?
Based on all this, I’d argue that Braun’s contract is at worst market value, and likely a tiny bit better than that. The problem for the Brewers, of course, is that nobody is going to absorb Braun’s contract and give up valuable player assets when they can just sign one of the other outfielders mentioned earlier. There could be a market for Braun, but surely not until those free agents have signed. The Brewers could capitalize on a team who misses out on any of those outfielders.
I’d still rate the odds of the Brewers trading Braun at less than 50-50, but those odds are certainly higher than they were a few months ago, and especially a year ago. The good news is that the Brewers are in a solid position in regards to Braun. His contract is sizable, but it’s not a killer. The Brewers have trimmed enough payroll that they don’t need to shed Braun’s salary. And because Braun is meeting his value, they can afford to be patient and wait for a solid offer. His contract isn’t like Ryan Howard’s or Albert Pujols’, in which the Brewers would have to pay a team a lot of money to take him for nothing. They can still rebuild while Braun is making his money and producing the way he did last season. Braun could stick around for the duration of the rebuild, or he could be traded a year or two down the road.
I should mention a final hurdle to trading Braun: He has a no-trade clause. The Brewers may not trade him to a team other than the Dodgers, Angels, Rays, Nationals, or Marlins without his permission. I see this as the smallest hurdle, though. Braun can see that the Brewers won’t be winning any time soon, so why not agree to a trade with a team more ready to contend? Sure, there are probably a few cities in which he’d never be willing to play, but that should still leave plenty of potential suitors.
The most likely way that Braun gets traded this off-season is if the Brewers compromise. At his full contract, Braun would not return much value in terms of the players the Brewers got back. But what if the Brewers threw in, say, 20-30 million of Braun’s $105 million contract? Now you’re looking at Braun for, say, 5 years, $75 million. Most teams in baseball would want Braun for that price. In doing this, the Brewers would create demand for Braun, and their asking price in terms of prospects could go up substantially.
A response to this idea could be, “Why should the Brewers pay a team to take their best player?” While that could seem frustrating on the surface, the reality is that the Brewers are rebuilding and should acquire as many high-ceiling prospects as possible. Lessening Braun’s contract would increase the return and go a long way toward a successful rebuild.