Though the outcome was widely expected due to Braun’s age -- he turns 37 next month -- and his trouble staying healthy in recent seasons, it was a blunt end to one of the most productive and complicated careers in Brewers history, with no acknowledgement on Thursday night from the club. Braun’s name appeared alongside pitcher Brett Anderson on a list of free agents released late in the day by the Major League Baseball Players Association, with the Associated Press reporting that the Brewers had declined their half of Braun’s $15 mutual option for 2021 and opted to pay him a $4 million buyout instead.
Braun is pondering whether to continue a career in which he has slashed .296/.358/.532 with 352 home runs and 1,154 RBIs. He was limited by myriad physical issues while playing 39 games during the shortened 2020 season, including more trouble with his surgically repaired back, and he posted career lows in batting average (.233), on-base percentage (.281) and WRC+ (99, representing the first time in Braun’s career that he was a below-average hitter by that metric). But just like 2008, ’11, ’18 and ’19, when Braun delivered some of the biggest hits in September for Brewers teams that made the postseason, he posted a .958 OPS with six home runs over the final month before aggravating an oblique injury in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against the Dodgers. Braun was unable to play in Game 2, when the Brewers season came to an end with a 3-0 loss.
The 2020 season was the final year of Braun’s $105 million contract extension originally signed in 2011, when he won the National League MVP Award but also failed a PED test that eventually led to a suspension for the final 65 games of 2013. Neither Braun nor the Brewers have ruled out a return in 2021 on a lesser deal.
“I think Ryan’s going to take his time here,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said after the Brewers were eliminated. “A constant with Ryan is I think he wants to understand what the world is going to look like as we get into next year, and we’re not going to know that for a while. So I don’t anticipate him really thinking much about this over the next couple months. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe he reaches a decision faster. But I would imagine Ryan’s going to take his time, enjoy the beginning of his offseason and maybe as we all get a little more clarity as to what baseball will look like in the new year, that’s when I anticipate he probably starts thinking a little more concretely about it.”
Braun was sentimental from the start of 2020, acknowledging at the Brewers’ annual Winter Fan Fest in January that it could be his last. He expressed similar sentiment upon reporting to what could be his last Spring Training, during which Braun served as a sounding board for teammate Christian Yelich as the younger star finalized a new, nine-year contract with the Brewers. It was only a week later that camps were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, and less than two months after that, Braun and his wife, Larisa, welcomed the birth of their third child. When the Brewers and Braun returned to action, he continued to espouse an open mind about his future.
After the Brewers’ final 2020 home game, Braun said, “I don't know. I really want to take the time to get away from it and reflect on the season and see what the sport itself and the world looks like. This has been such a unique and challenging year in so many ways that I just want to take my time making that decision. Being a parent and being a husband, my family are my top priorities in my life. As my kids get older, I don't enjoy being away from them at all. One of the biggest challenges of this game is we're on the road a lot and miss out on a lot of things.”
If this marks the end of Braun’s tenure with the Brewers, besides leading the franchise in home runs, he ranks second in franchise history to Robin Yount in doubles, total bases, extra-base hits and RBIs and third to Hall of Famers Yount and Paul Molitor in runs, hits and stolen bases. Only the trio of Yount, Molitor and Jim Gantner played more games in a Brewers uniform than Braun.
More roster decisions loom
The Brewers have other option decisions that must be settled by Sunday. They hold club options on infielders Jedd Gyorko ($4.5 million with a $1 million buyout) and Eric Sogard ($4.5 million with a $500,000 buyout) and outfielder Ben Gamel ($2.55 million with no buyout). Gyorko and Sogard would be free agents if the Brewers decline; Gamel would remain under club control as an arbitration-eligible player.
Sunday is also the deadline for teams to extend qualifying offers to their free agents, but at an $18.9 million price tag, the Brewers will extend no such offers.