In sports, some things go on so long they start to seem eternal. The Brewers have a good example of this phenomenon in Ryan Braun’s contract.
When Braun signed his current contract all the way back in 2011 it extended ten years into the future, more or less implying that Braun would be a Brewer forever. A decade in baseball is a really long time. Many years have since passed, however, and the end of Braun’s deal is starting to come into focus.
According to Cot’s Contracts the Brewers’ minimum commitment to Braun is $60 million over the next three seasons, including the $4 million buyout on his 2021 club option (the former total expands to $71 million over four years if the Brewers exercise the option). The remainder of Braun’s contract is now only slightly more than what the Rockies just gave former Cubs closer Wade Davis or what MLB Trade Rumors predicts a team will give former Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn in free agency this winter.
It’s unclear if Braun will be more or less valuable than Davis or Lynn over the next few years but this much is apparent: Inflation across the game has significantly lowered the bar for the level of production Braun would have to provide to be worth his contract. During his time at FanGraphs this summer Matt Swartz attempted to quantify and predict the financial value of talent in the free agent market. When Braun signed his current extension in 2011 the estimated value of a single win above replacement (WAR) for a free agent was around $6.4 million. That figure climbed to $10.5 million in 2017 and is projected to reach $12.4 million in 2020.
Using Swartz’s data as a guide one can estimate that the Brewers have gained over $200 million in surplus value above what they’ve paid Braun during his MLB career, including just under $16 million in benefit above cost in 2016 (using an average of two prominent WAR statistics, calculations here). The only years where Braun has had negative surplus value as a Brewer were 2014 and 2017.
Swartz’s projections also leave an opportunity to estimate what Braun’s performance would have to look like for the next three seasons for the Brewers to break even on the remainder of his contract. Producing exactly 1.7 WAR over the next three seasons would do it, which would only be a slight improvement over Braun’s down year in 2017 (when FanGraphs had him at 1.5 WAR). For comparison purposes, 1.7 WAR per season would put Braun at a level of production alongside the 2017 seasons of Adam Duvall of the Reds, Adam Jones of the Orioles and Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets. It’s not an unreasonably high bar. He’ll also be 34, 35 and 36 years old for those seasons, however, so it may not be reasonable to expect him to perform well above those levels.
Braun’s name has not come up often in trade rumors this winter for an array of possible reasons, not the least of which is his oft-reported reluctance to approve a trade to most cities. The Brewers have been rumored to be willing to trade Braun for years but appear unwilling to do so just to dump salary: Even with Braun on the books Milwaukee was among MLB’s lowest payrolls in 2017 and project to be one of just a handful of teams under $100 million for 2018. Without Braun’s salary the Brewers would likely find themselves with a payroll number comparable to or below many rebuilding teams, a likely unpopular look for a team that was on the edge of contention in 2017. At the same time, it would likely be difficult for another front office to justify trading players of any significant value to the Brewers for Braun and his contract when, for example, Lorenzo Cain and Jay Bruce are still free agents.
As such, another year has passed but Ryan Braun’s trade market situation has not significantly changed: He still remains too valuable to give away, and the Brewers don’t need the financial relief they would gain by doing so. At the same time, it’s still unlikely that any potential suitor would mortgage their future to trade for him at this point in his career. He’s more valuable to Milwaukee than anyone else at this point, and all but certain to be a Brewer for at least another year.