Ryan Braun is one of the most polarizing athletes who plays within the great state of Wisconsin. Braun is now entering his tenth season as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers and during that time, he has become one of the best players in the franchise's history. He's the team's all-time leader with 255 home runs, has a career wRC+ of 142, captured the 2011 NL MVP, and has accrued 35.4 fWAR/40.0 bWAR since breaking into the big leagues in 2007. "The Hebrew Hammer" may have also hit one or two memorable home runs for Milwaukee.
Of course the 2011 PED accusations and subsequent suspension in 2013 will always loom large in the eyes of many fans around the state and around the game. Braun adamantly denied that he "knowingly" took any substance during a memorable press conference in spring of 2012, only to eventually get caught up in the Biogenesis scandal that saw 11 other players receive suspensions. Though some have moved past these issues, there are many who have not and will not ever forgive Ryan Braun.
He signed a pre-arbitration contract extension in 2008 that kept him in Milwaukee through 2015 for the paltry sum of just $44.5 mil over seven seasons. Ryan would have become a free agent this past winter if it had not been for Mark Attanasio stepping in during the early stages of the 2011 season to offer him a second contract extension, one that covered the 2016-2020 seasons, his ages 32-36 seasons, at a cost of $105 mil.
For a small market team like the Brewers, $21 mil per year over five seasons (not factoring in deferrals) is nothing to turn your nose up at. However with the current rebuilding philosophy that the club has pivoted to, there has been much ado from fans about how Braun's contract will hamstring the franchise.
"They'll never be able to trade him!"
"They'll have to eat so much money just to dump him!"
"The worst contract in baseball!"
It's time for fans to slow their roll and take a step back for a minute. Ryan Braun is undoubtedly making a good chunk of change, but how does his contract look in comparison to some others around the game?
According to Cot's Contracts, Ryan Braun's $105 mil extension ties him with Kevin Brown for the 59th richest baseball contract of all-time. Jayson Werth, Jose Reyes, Carl Crawford, and Alfonso Soriano are some examples of players who have signed for bigger guarantees than Braun's. His $21 mil average annual value ranks him 41st all-time. That's behind players like Joe Mauer, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Cain, and Ryan Howard.
Just this winter alone, seven free agent players signed for larger guarantees than Ryan Braun's:
David Price - $217 mil
Zack Greinke - $206.5 mil
Jason Heyward - $184 mil
Chris Davis - $161 mil
Justin Upton - $132.75 mil
Johnny Cueto - $130 mil
Jordan Zimmerman - $110 mil
An eighth player, Yoenis Cespedes, also beat Braun's AAV handily with his three-year, $75 mil deal to return to the Mets.
So now that we've established that Braun isn't making THAT much money comparatively, what's it going to take for Ryan to earn his contract? Well, the going free market rate for one Win Above Replacement is now somewhere around $7-8 mil. That means that over the life of his deal, Braunie would need to accrue somewhere between 13-15 WAR in order to justify a $105 mil expenditure, not accounting for any sort of inflation that may occur.
After a couple of down seasons battling through a troublesome nerve injury in his right thumb, Braun and the Brewers finally stumbled upon cryotherapy as an effective method to deal with the pain. As a result Ryan had a bounce back season for the Brewers last year, producing a .285/.356/.498 batting line with 25 home runs and 24 stolen bases in 568 plate appearances. That performance earned him somewhere between 2.8 and 3.8 WAR, depending on whose algorithm you prefer.
Braun did have back surgery over the winter but has reported to camp without restrictions, though the team will still be easing him into spring training game action. Moving back to left field this year should also help take less of a physical toll on his body both now and over the long-term. Braun's also admittedly been a much better defender in left, and the statistics back that up: he's got 26 career defensive runs saved in seven seasons as a left fielder versus -8 in two seasons in right.
ZiPS projects Ryan to have a similar season to last year's: .280/.345/.480 with 23 home runs and 18 stolen bases for 2.7 zWAR. Of course a boost in defensive efficiency should also push that projected WAR total a little bit higher as well. Ryan doesn't need to play at an All-Star level over the next five years in order to earn his keep on the Brewers' payroll, he simply needs to perform as an above-average starter and average about 3 WAR per season. If he can simply maintain the level of production that he established last season and is projected for this year, he and the Brewers will be just fine.
A recent article by Dan Szymborski at ESPN.com listed the 25 worst contracts in baseball, with Albert Pujols' mammoth $240 mil mistake by the Angels topping the list. Ryan Braun's name was nowhere to be found. Braunie is a very well-compensated player, but he's nowhere near the top earners in baseball and his contract should hardly be seen as an albatross at this point. He doesn't have to return to his pre-2012 levels of production to justify his contract, though of course that would be nice. He's still an above-average contributor in the starting lineup, and he need only maintain that solid production and stay relatively healthy to be worth his deal.
For a 32 year old with some health questions, that is easier said than done of course. Ultimately though, things could be much worse for the Brewers. Texas DH Prince Fielder's contract was ranked as the third worst albatross in baseball. Would you rather that Milwaukee was on the hook for the $120 million that he's still owed?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs