Brewers Should Shop Ryan Braun

When rumors circulated last week that the Milwaukee Brewers might consider trading left fielder Ryan Braun, it generated a ton of interest around the sport. After all, this year’s free-agent market is largely devoid of top-level offensive thump other than Robinson Cano, and an elite hitter like Braun would fit nicely into the lineup of nearly every contending team in baseball.

Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin quickly shot down the rumors and further defused the talk by discussing the potential of moving Braun to right field next year.

So while it seems the Brewers might not have any plans to move him, I would argue that they should reconsider that stance.

This has little to do with Braun’s performance-enhancing drug troubles, though that’s certainly a part of the story. It has a whole lot more to do with the fact that Braun turned 30 last week and plays for a team that has gone from 66 to 79 to 88 losses in the past three years and is stuck in a division that had three 2013 playoff teams and a Chicago organization that’s maybe only a year away from seeing its crop of highly touted prospect bats start to arrive.

With a thin starting rotation and one of the weakest farm systems in the game, Milwaukee is probably in for a tough few years. The Brewers can finish in last place just as easily without Braun as with him.

Milwaukee is years away

The Brewers could hang on to Braun as he ages and the team rebuilds, all the while dealing with ticket holders who feel as though they’ve been betrayed, or they could give both themselves and Braun a fresh start. Those who insist that Braun’s baggage will prevent other teams from wanting to acquire him are mistaken; over the past three years, including his shortened 2013, he has been one of the 10 most valuable players in the game. It’s naive to think that other teams wouldn’t jump at the chance to add that skill set.

Elite hitters

Over the past five seasons, these are the 10 best hitters according to wRC+.

PLAYER wRC+
1. Miguel Cabrera 169
2. Mike Trout 163
3. Joey Votto 163
4. Ryan Braun 152
5. Albert Pujols 150
6. Jose Bautista 149
7. Prince Fielder 147
8. Matt Holliday 147
9. Joe Mauer 147
10. Buster Posey 140

That’s especially true because the current market is set up in such a way that acquiring talent via trade is often more efficient than via free agency, since the sport is both flush with television money and limiting where teams can actually put that money to use. Knowing that signing Cano — who is a year older and will cost a draft pick — is likely to top $200 million, Braun’s contract looks almost reasonable.

For example, San Francisco outfielder Hunter Pence, seven months older than Braun, signed a five-year deal worth $90 million to remain with the Giants in September. That’s an average annual value of $18 million for a solid player heading into his age-31 season who had never been more valuable in a season than Braun until 2013, when Braun played only 61 games.

By comparison, Braun heads into his age-30 season with seven years and $117 million left on his deal, a lower average value of $16.7 million. (That doesn’t include a $4 million buyout of a 2021 option but also doesn’t account for the fact that $18 million is deferred through 2031 at no interest, lowering the value.)

If Braun were on the open market, he would almost certainly match his current deal’s total value and perhaps get more. That’s the case despite the ugliness surrounding his controversial failed drug test, successful appeal and ultimate suspension that cost him the final 65 games of 2013, an elephant in the room that can’t be ignored.

But the truth of the matter is that as much as fans may dislike it, major league teams value talent over rap sheets. Just this month alone, Marlon ByrdJhonny Peralta and Carlos Ruiz — all with PED-related suspensions in the recent past — signed deals that roughly equaled or exceeded their entire career earnings to date, and Nelson Cruz is likely to do the same soon.

The annual inflation in salaries factors into that somewhat, but it’s mostly that they were among the best options on the market and were paid accordingly, despite the black marks on their records. Front offices want to win games, not act as the sport’s morality police.

Low supply of superstars

Braun’s reputation is likely tainted forever, but the fact is that there’s no simple pill or cream that can account for a No. 5 overall draft pick hitting the way he did from the start of his career, not when he is one of just 21 players in history to have a .400 wOBA in his 20s (minimum 4,000 plate appearances).

In other words, his combination of talents is nearly unmatched on the market, and he would be a fascinating trade chip were he to become available. Over the summer, Jim Bowden wrote that Braun is still by far the Brewers’ most valuable asset and would be consideredsecond only to Cano if he were a free agent this winter.

While the Mets are often mentioned when his name comes up, it’s actually teams like Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Seattle that would immediately be able to get into the game for a talent that usually eludes them on the open market. The Pirates and Royals desperately need a power-hitting corner outfielder as they attempt to capitalize on their breakthrough 2013 seasons, while Seattle is constantly looking for offense and has money to spend. (Braun has a no-trade clause, but those are easily negotiated around.)

The Pirates, Royals and Mariners all have the high-end prospects that the Brewers desperately need, and a Braun trade would help jump-start the rebuilding process while ridding Milwaukee of a PR problem.

As we’ve seen on the market so far this winter, PED busts aren’t creating a drag on value, and making Braun available could do wonders for Milwaukee’s future.




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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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