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Brewers Extend Ryan Braun

The news this afternoon broke seemingly out of nowhere. Ryan Braun had just signed a five-year, $105 million extension that locks him in through the 2020 season. If it feels as though we just experienced a similar situation, it’s because we did. The Rockies signed Troy Tulowitzki to a six-year, $119 million extension in November even though he was under contract through 2014. Similarly, Braun’s current contract with the Brewers runs through 2015.

Before we dive into what this means for the Brewers, I suggest taking a moment to re-read Dave’s article on the Tulowitzki extension. It helps put in perspective part of the Brewers’ motivation for enacting this deal now and not a few years down the road. If they’re not betting on significant inflation affecting the market in the next four years, then their motives become a bit more questionable.

As if Braun weren’t already the face of the franchise, this seals it. His contract with the team now runs through his age-36 season, and has an option for the next year. He joins a small group of players — which include Derek Jeter, Todd Helton, and Tulowtizki — who have signed large contract extensions that keep them with their original teams through their most productive years. There’s some value to that, in that it signals to fans that the team won’t just let every homegrown player walk to a large market team after six years. That, I’m sure, factored into the Brewers’ decision.

Braun’s prowess at the plate is also no secret. His .388 wOBA from 2008 through 2010 ranks 14th among all qualified players, and the difference between Braun and the No. 8 player is a mere 5 points. His overall value gets downgraded a bit because he plays left field, and, according to our aggregate defensive rankings, doesn’t play it particularly well. His WAR in the past three years, 13.7, ranks 20th among his peers. He’s entering his prime years now, though, and it’s not difficult to envision him outpacing that production in the next few years. But that just raises another issue.

The Brewers already have Braun locked up through the bulk of his most productive years. His current contract runs through 2015, his age-31 season, at which point he would have reached free agency. Barring injury or other unexpected occurrence in the next five years, Braun will likely provide considerable, if not elite, value past that point. But his production in those years is less certain than in the years covered by his current contract. Again, this points back to Dave’s point about the Rockies betting on future inflation. For this deal to make sense for the Brewers, they have to be betting that salaries will inflate considerably between now and 2016, and that their extension will look like something of a steal by that point. Otherwise, signing him for his age-32 through age-36 seasons during his age-27 season seems a bit foolish.

In this way, the Brewers have shielded themselves from a bit of criticism at this point. They’re making a bet that won’t become a factor for another five years. Is it a smart bet? I ask you, would you place a similar bet, that baseball salaries will inflate considerably in the next four years, with your own money? I wouldn’t. I’m not sure that provides us with any further insight about the wisdom of the Brewers’ move, but it’s an interesting question to ponder.

I’d add a note about this meaning the Brewers unofficially waving goodbye to Prince Fielder after this season, but that was apparent long before the Braun extension. The Brewers are already at $57.4 million in 2012 salary, and that’s just for six players. They have a lot of third-year arbitration cases beyond that. The Brewers have never topped $91 million in payroll, so it appears unlikely that they’ll even make a valiant effort to keep Prince. It’s a shame, since he and Braun represent one of the best 3-4 combos in the game. But, again, the Braun extension doesn’t change this situation much, if at all.

Any time we’re dealing with an extension keeps a player under contract for 10 seasons is going to draw some level of criticism. That criticism gets amplified when the player was already under contract for the next five years. But the Brewers have decided that Braun is their guy, the face of their franchise, and they’re putting in their chips on him. They’re also putting in their chips on inflation changing the salary landscape in the next few years. If they’re not, it becomes a lot more difficult to justify a five-year extension to a player under contract for five more already.