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Brewers Trade Assets: Ryan Braun

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Trading the face of the franchise is a complicated and multi-faceted topic.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The next several days figure to be among the busiest of the Major League Baseball offseason: the annual Winter Meetings, where all 30 General Managers get together along with players, agents, and media, runs through Thursday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. The Milwaukee Brewers and Slingin’ David Stearns completed a large volume of transactions at last year’s event, but this time around the team isn’t expected to be quite as active. While that may be true, the direction of the franchise could very easily change this week and the bulk of the headlines surrounding our local nine figure to revolve around one topic: whether or not the Brewers will trade one Ryan Joseph Braun.

It’s been almost twelve years since the Brewers selected Braunie at 5th overall in the 2005 MLB Draft. He won Rookie of the Year in 2007, helped lead playoff runs in 2008 and 2011 (the year he won MVP), has been an All-Star six times, and has batted .304/.367/.544 (141 wRC+) in 1,354 games while setting the franchise record with 285 home runs. There was that whole PED debacle and the subsequent suspension in 2013, of course, but Braun has been nothing but apologetic and has said all the right things publicly since then. Even though there are still plenty of people who haven’t forgiven those transgressions, Braun is unarguably one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise.

As the calendar turns to 2017, Braun will be entering his age-33 season and there is reason to wonder how much longer he’ll be able to keep up his level of production. Outside of his rookie year in 2007 and the suspension-shortened year in 2013, Ryan’s never taken less than 564 trips to the plate in a full season but he has fought through some injuries in the past few years. He seems to have moved past his once troublesome thumb issue after finding cryotherapy as an effective treatment, and he also had back surgery last offseason. Still, Braun has been able to stay on the field even in spite of all that and has still been an elite hitter the past two years, combining for a .295/.361/.518 (131 wRC+) slash line with 55 home runs and 40 stolen bases. The question now is whether or not the Brewers can bet on Braun maintaining that rate of effectiveness as the club continues to build.

If Stearns doesn’t feel comfortable moving forward with Braun as a part of the core, then it may very well be that his trade value will never be higher. Ryan is clearly still one of the most dangerous outfield bats in the game and compared to the $110 mil contract the Mets just handed out to Yoenis Cespedes, the $80 mil ($58 mil through 2020, $4 mil buyout on 2021 option, $18 mil in deferred money to be paid 2022-2031 per Cot’s Contracts) that the Brewers still owe to Braun looks downright reasonable for a player of his caliber.

A trade isn’t quite as easy as that, however. Ryan does have a limited no-trade clause that allows him to veto any deal to all but six teams. Last year that list included the Angels, Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Marlins, though Tom Haudricourt recently reported that Braun had changed out one of those teams but wouldn’t specify which. If he’s not going to be in Milwaukee, it seems clear that Braun would prefer to be near his hometown of Los Angeles or where he played collegiately at Miami.

So if the Brewers wanted to trade Braun to say, the Dodgers, the team wouldn’t need to worry about getting his permission. There haven’t been any concrete rumors this winter, but Braun and the Dodgers have been speculatively linked since it was rumored that a waiver trade between the two teams fell through back in August. That deal was reportedly centered around a package including Yasiel Puig, but according to Jayson Stark of ESPN the Dodgers have been going out of their way recently to tell other teams that said trade was never as close to being completed as had been reported. The Dodgers do have more pressing needs to be addressed with their pitching and at second base and third base, however, and JP Morosi writes that the club appears to be waiting on recently departed third baseman Justin Turner’s decision about whether or not to re-sign before addressing the outfield. Morosi does believe that the Dodgers will ultimately land Braun, though I’ll add that among the teams Braun can’t veto a trade to that the Giants could also use a power bat and some help in the outfield.

Beyond a move to one out of those handful of teams, however, dealing Braun becomes a much more complicated issue. The Braves reportedly checked in on Braun during this past summer before Braun exercised his no-trade clause to block a deal from getting any further, so he’s obviously not afraid to use the leverage where he has it. Brad Ford of Disciples of Uecker speculated that getting Braun to waive his no-trade clause may theoretically be as simple as getting a team to guarantee his $15 mil option for 2021, but of course forcing a team to commit to him for an additional year through his age-37 season would alter Braun’s trade valuation. The Brewers are already likely to have to pay down some money in order to facilitate a deal but adding the option year into the mix would mean either eating an even more significant chunk of the deal or lessening the package that would come back to Milwaukee in return. Morosi seems to think that rather than playing for a winner or having his option exercised, however, that Braun would simply “love to play in California” so it may be a moot point, anyhow, and he’ll only consider deals that would send him to a team in The Golden State.

When it comes down to it, there are really two schools of thought on the issue: trade Braun this winter for whatever the best package offered is, or set a firm price and hold on to him if it’s not met. Ryan achieves his 10-5 rights next May meaning he’ll have earned full no-trade protection thanks to his years of MLB service, so it may be that we’re looking at a “now or never” sort of scenario. Braun’s commitment isn’t onerous enough that it should greatly hamper the Brewers in the future if he remains with the team, and removing him from the picture would assuredly push back the competitive window for a team that as assembled, has a chance to be decent next year. If the best offer for Braun is a couple of 50 grade prospects with the Brewers swallowing a bunch of money, it’d be tough to justify moving the face of the franchise. Whether it’s a young and controllable MLB-level player or a top-flite prospect, the Brewers need to get back at least one elite talent along with a few other pieces to make a trade of this magnitude worthwhile.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference