Prince Fielder arrived in the majors in 2005, Braun followed two years later, and soon afterward it became clear that the Brewers could reasonably afford to retain only one of the superstars on a long-term contract. That’s the reality of doing business in the majors’ second-smallest television market, according to Nielsen.
The Brewers chose Braun, signing him to multiyear deals totaling $150 million. He’s under contract through at least 2020. It’s almost unfathomable that the Brewers would be able to trade him this winter. Releasing him is even less plausible, because the money is guaranteed.
Now the team is left with a series of uncomfortable questions following his season-ending suspension for violating baseball’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Among them:
… Is Braun still viable as the face of the franchise’s marketing efforts?
… Will there be a negative impact on the team’s bottom line — either in fan disengagement or a reduction in merchandise sales tied to Braun’s name, likeness and No. 8 jersey?
… Will Braun ever produce at an MVP level again, now that — presumably — he won’t have the benefit of PEDs? (His OPS this season — .869 — was the second lowest of his career.)
If those questions sound dramatic, it’s only because this is the first time Major League Baseball has slapped a PED suspension on a true superstar at the height of his power. Braun is more integral to the Brewers’ long-term health than a late-career Manny Ramirez ever was for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In L.A., there’s always another phenomenon ready to burst — as the Dodgers have demonstrated over the past 12 months. It’s different in Milwaukee. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio can’t buy a new superstar now that Braun’s reputation has been sullied. The team is stuck with its commitment to Braun, for better or worse.
A Brewers spokesman said Tuesday that the team “reached out to many of our key corporate partners and suite-holders and had conversations with a number of season seat-holders to gain insight into their thoughts” following Monday’s announcement. It didn’t appear that the Brewers made any immediate changes to their in-stadium branding; photos of Braun remained in place throughout the Miller Park concourses during Tuesday’s game against San Diego.
We can debate whether Fielder — represented by Scott Boras — would have signed for the money Braun did to stay in Milwaukee. The point is that the Brewers don’t have another Fielder — either on the roster today or in the farm system. And it’s hard to see how the Brewers will compete against the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds if Braun is only 70 percent of the force he was, on and off the field.
When Braun returns to the team next spring, the clubhouse atmosphere shouldn’t be dramatically different from the one he encountered this year.
Braun never has been “one of the guys.” Profound narcissism has prevented Braun from inspiring enduring loyalty among his teammates, even if they’ve always respected his ability. To that extent, he probably will be received in the clubhouse next year the same way he was in 2012 or 2013 — as long as he produces.
Publicly, many Brewers players remained supportive of Braun this week. Some said they didn’t care to hear any more details about what Braun did beyond what he said in Monday’s closed-door meeting. In fact, starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo — Braun’s roommate in the minor leagues — said he still believes Braun never used PEDs.
Manager Ron Roenicke said Tuesday that it might be helpful if Braun spoke in greater detail about the suspension — provided that the commissioner’s office would permit him to share specifics about the evidence gathered against him. But as unforgiving as the reaction has been from many associated with the sport, I heard no on-the-record attacks on Braun in the Brewers’ clubhouse.
“I’m sure everyone in this room will eventually know exactly what happened,” Logan Schafer, Braun’s replacement in left field, said to a group of reporters Tuesday afternoon.
“Until then, it doesn’t really matter what we think or what opinions we’re making or how he’s being killed in the media. It doesn’t really matter, because what are they killing him for? He just accepted a suspension, but nobody knows what it’s for. Until we figure that out, I don’t think I have any opinion … I don’t know exactly how to feel until I know all the facts.”
The players’ union will face pressure to accept even harsher penalties in the next collective bargaining agreement.
The current CBA expires after the 2016 season. While it’s always possible that MLB and the MLB Players’ Association could reopen and amend the document before then, fundamental change is more likely to occur during the next round of bargaining.
At that point, how far will the players be willing to go? A substantial number of players probably would support an increase from 50 to 100 games for a first offense. There would be more trepidation about an immediate lifetime ban; as respected San Diego Padres veteran Mark Kotsay pointed out to me Tuesday, many players are concerned about the chance of a false positive — however remote that might be — effectively ending a player’s career.
Bob Costas raised an even more meaningful issue on MLB Network this week: The ultimate game-changer would be if teams had the opportunity to void contracts on the basis of a PED suspension. How different would Monday’s news be for the Brewers, if they had the freedom to cut Braun loose at no cost to them? Instead, they’re obligated to pay him more than $100 million over the remainder of his contract, beginning next year.
In a twisted way, Braun’s story shows incentive still exists for players to cheat: He will continue collecting huge paychecks except for the 65 games this season during which he’s suspended without pay. That doesn’t seem fair. So, the union must either (a) come up with a compelling argument as to why the rules must remain as they are or (b) agree to the commonsense change Costas suggested.