Almost exactly one year ago, the Philadelphia Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five year contract extension that was, shall we say, not exactly well thought of. The Phillies already had their slugging first baseman under team control for the current season and an additional one, but chose to give him a long term deal that locked up his age 32-36 seasons anyway.
Little did we know that this extend-a-guy-who-doesn’t-need-an-extension idea was going to turn into a full fledged trend. The Rockies took it to another level over the winter, giving Troy Tulowitzki a six year deal that, combined with his current contract, will keep him in Colorado through 2020. While I thought that deal exposed the Rockies to a lot of risk, Tulowitzki is in the best-player-in-baseball conversation, and locking him up now did give them a chance to keep an elite player around – an option that might not have been possible had they waited for him to have another MVP type season or two.
Now, we have the Ryan Braun extension, which borrows some from each of the first two moves. Like Tulowitzki, the Brewers chose to sign Braun through 2020, despite the fact that he was already under contract through 2015. Like Howard, they locked up a big time power hitter’s age 32-36 seasons. Braun simply isn’t as good as Tulowitzki and he got nearly the same amount of money, so it’s easy to say that this extension for Milwaukee is worse than the deal Colorado made. But, is it worse than the roundly mocked deal that Philadelphia made?
Braun and Howard are actually pretty similar players. They’re both bat-only players who derive all of their value at the plate, but are good enough at pounding the ball to still be worthy of their All-Star selections. Braun has been worth between +4 to +5 wins each of the last three seasons; Howard’s value is less consistent but averaged in that range as well. Braun walks a bit less and strikes out a bit less, but their BB/K ratios are almost identical. Braun is a better athlete, but there’s a pretty good chance he’ll also be a first baseman by the time this extension kicks in, especially with Prince Fielder’s inevitable departure from Milwaukee.
Braun is a better player than Howard today, but the relevant comparison is Howard now to Braun in 2014, when he would have been at the same point in age and proximity to free agency when the Phillies locked up their first baseman. Will Braun still be a +4 win player in three year’s time?
It’s possible, certainly. You could point to guys like Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis, who were similarly valuable through age 27 but then took a step forward in their age 28 and 29 seasons. Braun is in the prime of his career, and it’s entirely within reason that his hot start to the season could be the start of his best year to date. However, we could also point to the likes of Jason Bay (an eerily similar player to Braun in terms of skillset), Carlos Lee, and Magglio Ordonez as warnings of this kind of skillet peaking early. Bay and Ordonez have had injuries, but that’s part of the risk of a long term deal – you don’t know what kind of physical condition a player will be in down the line.
At least the Phillies had a reasonable expectation of Howard being relatively healthy when the extension they gave him kicked in. They were only 18 months away from him reaching free agency, so the chances of a catastrophic problem limiting his value were greatly reduced. The Brewers need Braun to get through three more seasons injury free before they could be at the same point of confidence in his mid-30s health.
While the Phillies overvalued Howard and his contributions, at least their deal had a triggering motivation of nearing free agency – why the Brewers decided to lock up Brauns’ age 32-36 seasons now is something of a mystery to me. They inherited a mountain of risk in order to sign away years that, historically, you don’t really want to be paying big money for anyway. The odds of Braun being better than an average player over the life of his new extension aren’t very good, so the Brewers need to hope that the going rate for an average first baseman jumps to $20 million per year in a few years.
I’m going to call that unlikely. Just based on the information they had at the time and the relative pressure they were under to make a deal, I think I’m forced to say that this extension makes even less sense than the Howard deal did for the Phillies. Locking up a star shortstop like Tulowitzki is one thing, but paying well in advance for the decline years of a bat-only player is just not a very good idea.