Brewers leftfielder Ryan Braun signed a five-year contract extension on Tuesday, worth $105 million and lasting from 2016 through 2020 with a $20 mutual option for 2021. It's surprising, premature and probably for too much money -- but it just might make a lot of sense too.
1. Is Ryan Braun worth that kind of money?
That's the obvious question after any contract, especially when it's historic for the money and the length. This deal is worth $21 million in average annual value, making it the second-most expensive contract ever signed by an outfielder, falling a little shy of Manny Ramirez's two-year, $45-million pact with the Dodgers but eclipsing Carl Crawford's recent seven-year, $142-million contract with the Red Sox. And Braun's deal only begins after his current eight-year agreement expires after the 2015 season and thus covers his age 32-to-36 seasons.
There's no doubt the 27-year-old Braun can hit. He was National League Rookie of the Year in 2007 and made the All-Star team each of the next three seasons. He has a .308 career average, a .367 on-base percentage and a .557 slugging percentage, while averaging 32 home runs and 105 RBIs over his four full seasons.
Since his debut on May 27, 2007, Braun ranks in the top 10 in the majors in nine offensive categories (hits, runs, extra-base hits, home runs, doubles, RBIs, slugging, average and OPS), so perhaps it seems fair that he received only the ninth contract of at least $100 million total value and at least $20 million average annual value.
Eight players received those previous nine contracts -- Alex Rodriguez (twice), Ramirez, Mark Teixeira, Joe Mauer, Ryan Howard, Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez -- and the commonality among the rest of that list is that, in addition to being great hitters, all but Ramirez are or were one of the following: a very good defensive player, a first baseman or both. Ramirez's contract, meanwhile, was agreed to before the 2001 season, meaning it not only was the Red Sox' current ownership group not in place, it also predated the recent movement emphasizing defense and, most importantly, Boston was able to utilize Ramirez as a designated hitter if necessary.
The Brewers are taking a much bigger chance on Braun. He was quickly moved off of third base following a rookie season in which both Ultimate Zone Rating and John Dewan's plus/minus system rated him as a terrible defender. In the outfield Braun has merely been below average, costing the Brewers about 23 runs in three-plus years according to UZR and only five runs according to plus/minus.
Regardless of the semantics, Braun is an excellent hitter, but he is not a two-way player, meaning his offense will need to be held to a higher standard throughout his career for the deal to be worthwhile, as he can't retreat to becoming a DH.
2. What's the rush?
This issue also arose in late November when the Rockies added seven years on top of the three years for which shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was already under contract. The question asked at that time is still relevant now: Why not re-evaluate closer to his contract's expiration date to be sure of his long-term health and performance? This example is even more egregious as Braun was already under contract for five more years.
The issue, of course, is that for a player in a small- or medium-sized market to accept a deal that might not be considered maximum value, such an arrangement must be made. The player sacrifices a little bit of money in exchange for the security of knowing the money is guaranteed. That was no doubt especially tempting to Braun, who has ingratiated himself in Milwaukee by exploring several business opportunities and opening a downtown restaurant.
One wonders if the Brewers were also offering somewhat of a retroactive I.O.U. to Braun because his first long-term contract -- eight years, $45 million -- was about as team-friendly as any in baseball, save the Rays' pact with Evan Longoria. Sure, Braun signed his contract after only one season, but he won the Rookie of the Year award and still agreed to only $45 million through his three arbitration years and his first two free-agent years.
If both contracts are evaluated jointly -- 13 years for $150 million -- then that starts making more sense, so at the very least this deal restores some equilibrium.
3. Prince Fielder is as good as gone
Before today, Brewers fans could have clung to a sliver of hope that maybe, if they squinted hard enough, if they prayed enough and if Facebook and Google infused the area with jobs and cash by both moving their corporate headquarters to a quaint office park alongside the Milwaukee River, maybe there was a chance Prince Fielder would sign a contract extension. That chance is now absolute zero.
Consider the evidence: 1) If the Brewers had a real shot at locking up the 26-year-old Fielder, would they have spent their resources of time and money negotiating an extension for his (slightly) older teammate that won't even begin until 2016? 2) Unless the Brewers magically imagine new revenue sources, they won't be able to afford two players making $19 million per year or more, and there's no way Fielder will accept a contract that lasts for only four years -- he'll probably seek eight and eventually settle for six or seven with an option -- meaning the start date of 2016 for Braun's contract is problematic for the Brewers' budget, as the club won't be able to afford both stars and 23 other players who can make them competitive in the NL Central.
4. Might the Brewers be undercutting the P.R. hit when Fielder leaves?
To combine the previous two points, the other reason for the timing of this contract is that the Brewers may be trying to save face after the season when they do little more than wave goodbye to Fielder. After locking up second baseman Rickie Weeks earlier this spring and now signing Braun far into the future, Milwaukee is spending large sums of money (though within its means) and proving to the fan base that it will compete to the best of its pocketbook's abilities.
The next step, of course, will be for the Brewers to keep their starting rotation intact. Yovani Gallardo has already signed a long-term deal through 2014 with a club option for '15, but trade acquisitions Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum are only under contract through 2012. Retaining one or both would be essential for the Brewers to remain competitive.
5. Could we be seeing a return of the single-team loyalist?
The monogamous star player had been relegated to endangered species status in the last decade or two of the game. When Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. and San Diego's Tony were inducted into the Hall of Fame together in 2007, they were celebrated as being among the last of the one-uniform treasures.
But maybe that movement is turning around again, as clubs realize the inefficiency of the free-agent market and increasingly emphasize scouting and development. Braun is now the seventh player who is signed to remain with the only organization he's ever known through age 36: Braun; the Yankees' Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera; the Phillies' Ryan Howard; the Braves' Chipper Jones; and the Rockies' Todd Helton. (The contracts for Mauer and Tulowitzki expire after their age-35 season.)
While Braun, Mauer and Tulowitzki are the most extreme examples of single-city longevity, the movement is afoot. The Red Sox have extended their homegrown core of Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis on deals of at least five years into their early 30s. The Rays have Longoria under team control through 2016 when he'll be 31. David Wright is working on a contract with the Mets of up to seven years that would carry him well into his 30s. Each of those players could sign one more multi-year contract to stay and finish their careers where they started.