The High Cost of Trading Ryan Braun

Last week, trade rumors centering around Ryan Braun being dealt to the Dodgers resurfaced in large part because of the Dodgers continued struggles against left handed pitching. On the surface, this trade makes a lot of sense. The Brewers, despite their early season success, are a rebuilding team and with about 70 million remaining on Braun’s contract, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Brewers to keep Braun around if the team’s window is a year or two away. The Dodgers struggles against lefties, surplus of prospects, financial flexibility, and the fact that Braun spends his offseason in LA  make the possible acquisition look even better on paper. Despite all of this, the possibility of Braun being sent to the Dodgers this season makes much less sense upon closer analysis.

First off, the Brewers may not have an interest in dealing Braun in exchange for a package of prospects. Despite the fact that Braun’s 20 million dollar salary takes up 32.6% of the Brewer’s 2017 payroll, Milwaukee’s total payroll is a meager 71 million. Milwaukee’s slim payroll is due in large part to David Stearns payroll cutting during last year’s trade deadline when he managed to shed nearly 40 million in salaries. Even though the Brewers are a small market team, they are already operating with low costs even by their standards. If the Brewers trade Braun, they would have the lowest payroll in the league. The fact of the matter is that the Brewers are comfortable with their current payroll and they may not want to cut it further if it means making their on-field product significantly worse.

While Braun’s payroll is often times cited as a “bad contract”, his contract is much more team friendly upon closer inspection. Using the “Value” tool on FanGraphs.com, the cost a team spends on each win in free agency is roughly 8 million. Braun was worth 3.2 WAR in 2016, meaning his value was 25.6 million to the Brewers in 2016. Since Braun is only being paid 20 million this year, he is actually a bargain for Milwaukee.

Braun also has four years left on his deal and has a mutual option for his fifth. Granted Braun is 33 years old and is bound to decline somewhat over the next few years, but when looking at comparable players based on similarity scores on Baseball Reference, his impending decline is not as drastic as one would assume. The players most comparable to Braun are Lance Berkman, Larry Walker, and Carlos Lee. All of these players provided solid production through their age 35 season. While finding comparable players is far from a full proof exercise, it provides important context for a player’s future production. Even if Braun declines and  becomes a 2 – 2.5 win player in the coming years, he could still be a valuable asset both as a player and as a leader in the clubhouse once Milwaukee’s playoff window opens again.

Braun’s value relative to his contract is a tangible way to make the case that Milwaukee should keep him around, but Braun means far more to the Brewers’ than just his on field value. Braun has spent his entire career with Milwaukee and is arguably the best Brewer of all time. Not only is Braun the Brewers career leader in home runs, he also ranks second in OPS, and third in career batting average, RBI, and stolen bases. Ryan Braun has been the best player on the Brewers roster since he was called up nearly a decade ago and despite being mired in steroid controversy, he has proved to be one of the most consistent and productive players in the MLB during his career. Along with Paul Molitor and Robin Young, Braun is on the short list of the guys you can reasonably say are the best to ever suit up for the Brew Crew. Giving up your best player is one thing, but trading away a franchise icon is a much more difficult pill to swallow.

We must also look at the potential return the Brewers can expect from the Dodgers. Normally, giving up a franchise player like Braun would net a top prospect or two in return, but the Dodgers have already taken top prospects Cody Bellinger and Yadier Alvarez off the table. Luckily, the Dodgers have a slough of other high end prospects such as Alex Verdugo, Willie Calhoun, and Walker Buehler. While a team can never have enough quality options in their farm system, the addition of outfielders Alex Verdugo and / or Willie Calhoun might be a bit redundant considering the Brewers have both Lewis Brinson and Corey Ray poised to crack the Milwaukee outfield in the next two seasons.

Finding a trade comparison for Ryan Braun is also difficult. The most similar trade we can find over recent seasons was the Tigers deal sending Yoenis Cespedes in exchange for right handed pitching prospects Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa. Braun, unlike Cespedes at the time, has four more years of team control and grades out as a better defender and baserunner than Cespedes. Based off the return that Tigers received for Cespedes, Brewers GM David Stearns could reasonably demand a bigger package in return for Braun’s services. With the Dodgers being relatively conservative in offering up their top prospects in exchange for veterans, it is unlikely that they would be willing to part ways with the prospects necessary to acquire Braun.

With a tantalizing core of talented young position players and a stocked farm system, the Brewers are already in a position to emerge as contenders in the next few years. Trading Ryan Braun could certainly bolster an already elite farm system, but the cost of letting their star player go would hurt ownership’s relationship with the Brewer and fan base and it is not clear that it would significantly boost the team’s future outlook.

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