Although plenty has been happening surrounding the Brewers and the rest of the baseball world over the past few days, the big news around Milwaukee baseball has to be the $105 million extension Doug Melvin and company handed over to Ryan Braun on Thursday. The deal extends Braun’s contract all the way through the 2020 at an average value of $19 million per season with a $10 million signing bonus. For the full breakdown, we refer to the incomparable Cot’s Contracts:
2016:$19M, 2017:$19M, 2018:$19M, 2019:$18M, 2020:$16M, 2021: mutual option up to $20M ($4M buyout)
That’s a ton of money, and it’s an awful long way out. In terms of the timing, this deal is most similar to Troy Tulowitzki’s new contract with the Rockies, which pays him $20 million annually from 2015-2019 before dropping off to $16M in 2020 and has a $15M club option in 2021. Braun and Tulowitzki have had their baseball fates seemingly tied at the hip since the MLB draft in 2005, going fifth and seventh respectively, and now have nearly the same contract making them their respective franchise’s player until 2020. For the record, I believe both teams are taking on what seems to be an unnecessary amount of risk (particularly Milwaukee) when the players in question had no chance of leaving until 2015. Betting on players to be that good six or more years down the road is a difficult proposition, and there are very many chances to be burned in the meantime.
However, it’s not Troy Tulowitzki but Ryan Howard who Braun’s situation is getting compared to. And while the Tulowitzki deal is no doubt better (Tulowitzki is a similar hitter to Braun but an above-average shortstop as opposed to a bad outfielder), comparing things to the outrageously bad Howard contract is unfair and requires a stretching of facts.
Both hitters will indeed be signed through their age 32-36 seasons with the contracts in question. Both players are poor defenders. It is there that the similarities end. Howard’s deal was signed with him already age 30, already on the decline (he posted a .367 wOBA in 2010, equal to that of stalwart A’s first baseman Daric Barton), and with a less-than-ideal physical makeup for aging well into his late 30s. Howard’s down 2010 season wasn’t simple BABIP issues, either — it was marked by a sharp decline in power, with his ISO dropping from .292 to .229 (SLG dropped from .571 to .505).
Braun might be in a similar point of his career when he reaches age 30, but it’s doubtful. Braun is coming off what many consider to be a down season, but even in a down season, Braun managed a .380 wOBA with a BABIP similar to his career mark and posted his fourth straight 4+ WAR season. Then, in the first month of the MLB season, Braun has been perhaps the best hitter in the league, hitting .382/.494/.691, a .504 wOBA, showing tremendous power and patience. Obviously, he will cool down, but his updated ZiPS projection has him for a .396 wOBA the rest of the way, one of the top 10 marks for the rest of the season (between Jose Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki, two hitters helped even more by their parks than Braun is by Miller Park).
Also, although Braun is a poor fielder, he can still shift over one more spot on the defensive spectrum. He’s also a bit of a rare bird in the sense that he’s an extremely athletic poor outfielder, so his aging will likely be different than, say, Adam Dunn, who quickly went from a simply bad outfielder to one of the worst ever in his last three seasons before moving to first. Speedy, athletic players like Braun tend to age well, which is a good sign for the Brewers.
So, although bias may be present on my part, it certainly appears to me that Braun is likely to be in better shape (in multiple ways) than Howard by the time their respective extensions kick in. Forget about that though, and let’s assume that both hitters will be equally good (or equally bad) at this point in the contracts. The amount of money being paid to Braun simply isn’t as crazy as the amount promised to Howard.
Howard will make $25 million annually from 2012-2017. Braun will make $19M or less annually from 2016-2020. We have to account for inflation here, however, as $1 million in 2012 will buy more than $1 million in 2016. Luckily, Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus already did the calculations for me on his twitter page. Using 2.5% inflation (a good estimate for inflation of the dollar, probably a conservative estimate for baseball salaries) the average annual value for Howard’s contract comes out to $22.5 million; the average annual value for Braun comes out to $17.6 million. However, that value for Braun includes signing bonus money. If we’re just talking about commitments over 2016-2020, that $10 million comes out, and the AAV for Braun comes out to (roughly) $15.6 million instead, a nearly $7 million difference per year. As I mentioned, this is likely a conservative estimate for inflation of baseball salaries (typically 5% per year instead). With higher inflation, the AAV for each player comes down, but since this inflation compounds over time, a higher inflation only makes Braun’s contract looks better, as does some $18 million in deferred money not accounted for here.
Again, I have to say I don’t believe this contract to be a good idea by the Brewers and their staff — there was no reason for this kind of urgency and betting on players to be good until they’re 36 rarely works out. However, Braun is a player still on the rise who has the body and athleticism to age well. He’s not Ryan Howard — a power hitter who has already shown signs of losing his power and has the plodding body that screams early aging. The comparisons to the Howard contract are exaggerated; this contract is a risk, not throwing money down the toilet.