9:45 PM CST, January 30, 2012
No. 17 Brewers: 14th in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Nationals.
Years from now, Brewers fans should remember this. Don't blame Ryan Braun for his contract.
That one's on owner Mark Attanasio, and to a lesser degree his general manager, Doug Melvin.
Melvin's not a tough-love guy. He's unwilling (or at the very least, unable) to throw himself in front of a speeding train when his boss experiences a sense of grandiosity, when he wants to make a magnificent gesture to back up his commitment to winning.
At least Attanasio was trying to reward Milwaukee fans for an unprecedented level of support. When Melvin worked for Tom Hicks in Texas, he watched in shock when Hicks danced with Scott Boras at the winter meetings in Dallas after the 2000 season, when the team he had just bought from George W. Bush's ownership group went 71-91, a drop of 24 wins from the year before.
Hicks was trying to show Rangers fans there was a new boss in town, and that things would be different under his administration. So he signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract that was the biggest in sports, and he did it when the next biggest offer was barely half what he paid.
It turned out to be the worst deal in the history of sports, even though Rodriguez was magnificent. The Rangers had to pay part of his salary to trade him to the Yankees, bringing their final tally to $130 million for three last-place finishes, and despite Rodriguez doing his part, attendance dropped an average of 180,000 a year.
But Rodriguez was a free agent when he signed, like Albert Pujols this winter. What was Attanasio thinking last April when he tacked a fat five-year extension onto a club-friendly eight-year, $45 million contract Braun had signed in May 2008 (Braun's second season), essentially guaranteeing he'll be the highest-paid Brewer through 2020?
The extension will make him one of 14 players ever to earn at least $20 million per season.
It stands as the fourth-biggest commitment in baseball history, and it was written by a team that plays in the second-smallest market in the majors. It is insane.
At least Joe Mauer was one year away from leaving his hometown team when the Twins gave him the $184 million deal that hangs over the franchise's head like a guillotine blade. Bill Smith, the general manager who was canned a year later, and owner Jim Pohlad were feeling tremendous pressure on the eve of the move into a publicly funded stadium. It was, in many ways, the perfect storm.
But all Attanasio was feeling was rejected. The Braun contract extension that took an obligation of about $40 million and turned it into $145 million over almost 10 years came about a month after Prince Fielder had affirmed he was going to do what Boras clients almost always do, enter free agency and chase a contract far larger than his five-year, $100 million offer from the Brewers.
No one wants to look cheap. Attanasio sure didn't. Not with the Brewers hitting the 3-million attendance mark at Miller Park in 2009. So he overlooked Braun being nearly five seasons away from free agency to lock him up.
Braun would have been a fool to say no to the deal, but it puts the onus on him to perform as well as Pujols, Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp and baseball's other elite hitters. So the guy who led the National League in slugging as a rookie amped up his game to again lead the NL in slugging and to compile a .994 OPS last season, earning an MVP award — and then he tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance.
Braun has said he'll be vindicated on appeal for the test that came back dirty last October. Maybe he will. There's a better chance of that than him giving Attanasio enough of a return to justify the unnecessary investment, with his free agency just a speck in the distance.
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