Analyzing a Potential Braun Trade

As we approach the trade deadline, rumors swirl.  Some, of course, are more likely to be acted upon than others.  Someone like Rich Hill, for example, is almost certain to be traded because of his contract status (free agent-to-be on a losing team).  Others, though, are more up in the air–and that is the position the Brewers find themselves in with Ryan Braun.

There have been reports of teams being interested in Braun, and I have no doubt those reports are real.  I assume the Brewers are listening to offers as well; they have no real reason not to, and if they get blown away by an offer I am sure they would jump on it.  However, this isn’t simply a matter of looking for the best offer and jumping on it.  The club has to decide whether they will trade him at all as well.

This is not a unique situation; for nearly all players, the team has to decide whether the return is more valuable than the contributions the player will provide.  The Brewers are even in a similar situation with Jonathan Lucroy, where they have to weigh the likelihood and value of a potential extension.

Braun, however, is a former superstar who is locked up long-term and still performing at a high level, which is a relatively unique commodity on the trade market.  There are reasons for the Brewers to both hold onto and trade Braun.

Contract Status
Braun is signed through 2020 and has a mutual option in 2021, and this is both a positive and a negative.

The fact that he is signed for so long (particularly in contrast to Lucroy) means that he is likely to still be under contract for the next good Brewers team.  If all goes right, this new wave of young talent will be coming into its own in the next few years, so it’s reasonable to expect that the Brewers will be competing for a playoff spot in 2019 and 2020.  And if he declines at a reasonable pace, he will still be a viable big-league outfielder in those years, and his presence in the clubhouse at that point would be a boon.

On the other hand, the fact that he is locked in for so long definitely impacts the amount that other teams will trade for him.  He is under control for the next four seasons, so the acquiring club will know they don’t have to replace him; however, he is also already 32, so that longevity may not be a good thing.

Additionally, it is worth noting that his contract is not as absurdly high now as it was when he signed it.  As I noted in an earlier article, what was a prohibitively-expensive contract four years ago simply is not anymore, as other contracts have risen around him.

Finally, his no-trade clause is a hindrance but not a show-stopper.  Ken Rosenthal’s report from earlier this year stated that he can be traded without his approval to several teams, but at least two of those have expressed some interest already (the Dodgers and Giants).  We also don’t know whether Braun will approve a trade to any other teams, but I imagine he would be interested in moving to a contender.

This is the interesting part of Braun’s story; his contract is expensive but not unmoveable, but teams’ ultimate interest will be based on his ability to hit.  His consecutive six-win seasons are well in the rearview mirror at this point, but he has had a resurgence this year.  He has posted 2.4 WARP through approximately two-thirds of the season, already surpassing his totals from 2013 and 2014 and matching his total from 2015.

His uptick has, of course, been buoyed by his bat.  He has a .313 TAv this season, which matches his career mark.  Whether the Brewers keep him or deal him, his employers for the next few years will be hoping that this is the version of Braun they will be getting.  As a three- or four-win corner outfielder, Braun is earning his $20 million.  As a two-win player, he isn’t really.

His performance this year is a bounce-back across the board, as his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage are all up.  Part of this improvement is driven by a high BABIP (.345), but his career mark of .336 demonstrates that he has always had that ability.  Any team trading for Braun will be gambling that this resurgence is real.

Both the Brewers and any team trying to acquire Braun are in a tough spot.  Braun is a franchise cornerstone for Milwaukee, and he is under contract for enough years in the future that the Brewers don’t need to trade him now, especially given his improvement.  However, holding on to him–either as a piece for the future or simply to trade at a later date–is risky.  If he stops hitting, teams will be scared off again.

Any potential trade partner is also facing the same risk; the Brewers will undoubtedly have a high asking price, and meeting that for a player who may not perform as expected for the next few seasons is going to be a difficult thing to do.  Giving up real assets for a star is palatable, but taking a chance on a mid-30s corner outfielder is much more risky.

For this reason, I don’t expect the Brewers to deal Braun this season.  With just a few suitors and the Brewers in no rush, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where a contending team parts with enough assets to make Milwaukee happy.  Instead, I expect the Brewers to hold onto Braun for the next two months, hope he keeps hitting, and then explore dealing him in the offseason.

Essentially, Braun’s trade value is predicated on his bat, and he currently has a short track record of producing.  The longer he hits at this level, the more convinced other teams will be that he is worth trading for.  The Brewers just have to hope he keeps hitting or they will be stuck with his contract.

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