Signing left fielder Ryan Braun to a five-year, $105 million extension through the 2020 season does more than effectively lock the slugger in for the vast majority of his career. Sure, he belongs to Milwaukee through his age-36 season at slightly less per annum than the Red Sox will be paying Adrian Gonzalez to slug for them into his mid-30s. This looks like letting the market set a starting point for what people who slug .500 or better are worth, and then working from there.
More significant, though, is the question of what this investment represents for general manager Doug Melvin’s near-term decision-making: Is it a bet that Prince Fielder will opt to stick around as a free agent-to-be, or does it define how long and who will be a Brewer in the future?
Keep in mind that Melvin has already shelled out all sorts of money to keep what he’s defining as the core of this club together in the short term. Consider the Brewers’ other major financial commitments in the last 12 months or so:
First, they signed starter Yovani Gallardo to a five-year, $30.1 million deal, which becomes $43 million over six if they pick up an option for 2015. Gallardo got a full no-trade clause through 2012, and limited no-trade protection after that.
They got outfielder Corey Hart to agree to a three-year, $26.5 million agreement last August, keeping him in Milwaukee through 2013. The deal includes a limited no-trade clause.
They traded for starter Zack Greinke, absorbing the $27 million it will cost to employ him through 2012, and accepting the fact that he has a limited no-trade clause for this season in place.
In February, they locked up second baseman Rickie Weeks for $38.5 million for four years, or $50 million through five, the fifth year being a vesting option for 2015 that will depend on his health and performance.
Add all of that up, and the payroll of the Brewers -- a team that still hasn’t won anything since 1982 beyond a lone wild-card slot in 2008 -- won't come down below the $80 million to $90 million range in the immediate future.
Because of those no-trade clauses, there would be some modest difficulties as far as breaking up the team if the Brewers once again come up short in the NL Central’s free-for-all this year or next. That isn’t really bad news on its own -- even with the injury history of Weeks and Gallardo, counting on those two and Braun to be the foundation of your ballclub over the next five years is a risk worth taking, and there’s plenty of recent history suggesting no-trade clauses are just one more biddable item for negotiation.
The problems this commitment involves are twofold: First, was Braun worth extending beyond their previous commitment through 2015? Since they already had Braun under contract through age 31, there was no need to get him inked through the bulk of his 30s -- when his value will drop, and when he may be headed toward first base. You can hope that last year’s power slip to an ISO (isolated power) number below .200 was just a hiccup, and that he’ll continue to deliver .550 or better slugging percentages, and the next several seasons should be productive -- but the Brewers already had him under contract for those seasons.
Then there’s the fact that, as Buster Olney reports, an up-front signing bonus of $10 million represents a massive outlay of cash, money that might have afforded Melvin the opportunity to add something major at the deadline. That might sound shortsighted, but after trading for Greinke and Marcum, the Brewers are already in win-now mode, so spending this sort of money now dips into coffers that probably aren’t bottomless.
That signing bonus brings up the second problem, which is the Fielder follow-on issue. Laying down that kind of money means it isn’t there to help pay Fielder the princely sum it’ll take to keep him. Maybe owner Mark Attanasio’s outfit has deeper pockets than we might guess, but probably not. Braun’s commitment looks more like a tacit choice that they’re going to be watching Fielder head into free agency as the alternative to Albert Pujols on the open market next winter. Signing Braun loudly, splashily, expensively and now might help protect fans from the pain of that, but they’ll be happier still if the Brewers win something first.
Christina Kahrl helped found Baseball Prospectus in 1996, is a member of the BBWAA and covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.