keyboard_arrow_uptop

Ryan Braun’s story seemed so simple a few years ago. Once among the elite hitters in baseball, he was popped for steroids, got suspended for the second half of 2013, and came back a shell of his former self in 2014. The dots all connected without much effort, the constant booing at every ballpark outside of Milwaukee seemed justified on several levels, and Braun’s massive long-term contract with the Brewers looked like an unmovable albatross destined to severely hamper them through 2020.

When a previously great player gets busted for performance-enhancing drugs and then sees his performance decline upon returning from suspension there’s the tendency to trust that data more than usual, making it easier to feel confident drawing sweeping conclusions from limited samples. In this case Braun also made many enemies along the way, due to vehement public denials and throwing others under the bus to escape blame. So when he hit a career-worst .266 with the first sub-.800 OPS of his career in 2014, it felt right to trust that decline was in full effect at age 30.

Turns out, not so much. Braun bounced back with a solid 2015 season, hitting .285/.356/.498 with 25 homers and 24 steals while making his first All-Star team since 2012. That production was well below his 2009-2012 peak, when he hit a combined .318/.385/.560 while winning one MVP award and finishing runner-up for another, but it was still pretty damn good and especially impressive for a 31-year-old hitter constantly dogged by nerve problems in his hand and a back injury that led to offseason surgery.

Braun has been banged up plenty this season as well, missing 19 of the Brewers’ first 109 games with an assortment of relatively minor maladies, but whenever he’s been in the lineup he’s been fantastic. Braun has hit .321/.385/.539 with 18 homers in 90 games, ranking among the league’s top 10 in batting average and OPS. He’s been locked in since the All-Star break, hitting .361 with more walks than strikeouts and five homers in 17 games, including Saturday’s two-homer, seven-RBI outburst in a blowout win over the Diamondbacks.

His defense, which suffered when Braun moved from left field to right field in 2014, is decent again now that he’s back in left field. Fielding Runs Above Average shows him as a neutral defender this season after being well below average in 2015. Despite sitting out nearly 20 percent of the schedule, Braun ranks 19th among National League position players in WARP, tied with Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto at 3.5. That surpasses his WARP totals from 2013, 2014 and 2015, with nearly two months remaining.

His current .321/.385/.539 line is nearly identical to his .318/.385/.560 line from 2009-2012, with the slight dip in power being canceled out by a lower offensive environment. True Average pegs him at .325 this season, which is the third-best of his career behind only his MVP-winning .345 in 2011 and MVP runner-up .327 in 2012. Braun is essentially back to his mid-20s peak, at age 32 and after it seemed so obvious he was nose-diving. His strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and strikeout-to-walk ratio are the best since his MVP year and his isolated power is a sturdy .220.

Braun’s turnaround has been so thorough and convincing that his long-term deal no longer even looks so bad. After this season he’s got four years and $76 million remaining. Not exactly an ideal fit on a rebuilding team, but it’s in line with recent contracts signed by over-30 corner outfielders as free agents. Last winter, 32-year-old Alex Gordon re-signed with the Royals for four years and $62 million. The previous offseason 31-year-old Hanley Ramirez got four years and $88 million from the Red Sox and 34-year-old Nelson Cruz got four years and $57 million from the Mariners.

Going back even further, 33-year-old Curtis Granderson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with the Mets in 2014 and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran inked a three-year, $45 million contract with the Yankees that same offseason. And that winter’s biggest corner outfielder signing was 31-year-old Shin-Soo Choo getting $130 million over seven years from the Rangers. Because of the baggage attached to Braun both on and off the field, it’s difficult to feel confident in a prediction about how he’d fare as a free agent, but at worst he belongs in the same group as the names above.

If a 32-year-old former MVP coming off a .321/.385/.539 season hit the open market it’s safe to assume there would be plenty of big, multi-year offers headed his way. Braun isn’t a typical 32-year-old former MVP and he’s also not hitting the open market, but he may be hitting the trade market in the near future. And thanks to his return to elite-hitter status, the Brewers may be able to get decent value for Braun beyond simply dumping his contract. In fact, it’s plausible that the value pendulum has swung far enough in the other direction that they have actual leverage.

Last month there were a few rumors from national reporters linking Braun to contenders and his contract provides an intriguing test for teams interested in dealing for him via the August waiver system. If a team thinks Braun’s market value is equal to or higher than the $80 million or so left on his contract, then claiming him on waivers carries no real risk. If the Brewers simply say “take him,” you get a big bat on a deal you’ve deemed palatable. If the Brewers insist on getting value in return, you’re back to where things were in July, except the pool of other suitors has dried up.

Braun is now just an elite hitter with a normal, elite-hitter contract and that opens up many more doors for the Brewers compared to even two years ago. They can rebuild around him because he’s signed through 2020, they can shop him for prospects while expecting an actual return and perhaps kick in a bit of cash to improve the package coming their way, or they can look to simply dump his entire contract and expect multiple other teams to bite. As the old cliché goes, baseball seasons are marathons, not sprints, and the same can often be said of long-term contracts.