Disclaimer: I want to make something perfectly clear. I like Braun. With the exception of spiking the crap out of Ryan Theriot on Tuesday, he's been exceptional as a Brewer, but I've done some serious thinking and found some validity in it.
Unless the Brewers get some kind of ridiculous discount to keep Ryan Braun here for his first six years of eligibility, arbitration is going to be far too kind to the converted outfielder. In a little less than one year of service, Braun is hitting .314/.356/.595, amassing 37 HRs, 134 RBIs and 19 SBs. How can you give that up? Braun's move to the outfield has created a log jam in the outfield as far as prospects go. Matt LaPorta and Cole Gillespie are currently playing in AA-Huntsville and are absolutely ripping the cover off the ball.
Matt LaPorta was drafted in the 1st round of last year's First Year Player Draft and has been impressing scouts all over the place. He began his first full professional season this year in Huntsville, and is batting an impressive .300/.400/.644 with 7 dingers and 27 RBIs. He has shown that he can hit for power to all fields, and has great discipline around the strike zone. One thing holds him back however: LaPorta is a former catcher who was converted to a first baseman in college and has now been moved to left field because Prince Fielder is poised to be the icon of the Brewers for years to come. As a result of this move, LaPorta has only played 46 games in the outfield, 25 in left and 21 in right. This lack of experience keeps LaPorta out of the majors so he can work on his reads and routes, making his 1.000 fielding percentage a bit deceiving.
Cole Gillespie is a three-star prospect who was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2006 First Year Player Draft from Oregon State. In almost two full seasons of professional ball, Cole is hitting .287/.400/.466 with 24 HRs, 111 RBIs and 35 RBIs. According to Baseball Prospectus, he has the best approach in the system, with a knack for the strikezone and the ability to poke balls into all gaps. Gillespie's downfall is his arm and speed, which (no doubt) dooms him to that left field spot. Essentially, he becomes the best bench player imaginable, or perhaps a guy you're willing to put on the field every day just to get on base and score runs. Nevertheless, he too is about a year or two out.
So in two years, the Brewers are looking at Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Tony Gwynn Jr., Matt LaPorta and Cole Gillespie poised and ready to play. In reality, only Hart and Gwynn can play center, leaving the three corner positions to Gillespie, Braun and LaPorta. But there's a glitch. As far as prospects go, OF is really the only position the Brewers have proven depth. J.J. Hardy will be due his money in his last year of arbitration. Prince Fielder will have his big deal. Rickie Weeks will be traded or get his low but deserved salary, and the Brewers may even think about locking up Yovani Gallardo for a couple of years. This leaves the 3B, C, and pitching at a bit of a disadvantage, likely only having Gallardo, Carlos Villanueva, and Manny Parra as the main stays.
For some, it's a no brainer. Trade Tony Gwynn and a couple of others and pick up some prospects. But I'm thinking long term. With the huge blockbuster trade this year of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, what could the Brewers possibly get in return for Ryan Braun and a couple of prospects? For those who don't know, in return for Cabrera and Willis, the Marlins received Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz, Dallas Trahern, Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo, and Cameron Maybin. That's four pitchers, a catcher and an OF prospect. These guys may not be getting the job done right now, but the idea is getting more bang for your buck. If the Brewers had some intestinal fortitude that could trade Braun's potentially bloated salary for a couple of top 3B or SP prospects.
And in the end, all you really lose is power. You'll sure up your depth on all fronts, save some cash to keep guys like Prince or Yovani and essentially keep this 'run' of a small market team going for more than just 3 or 4 years. The other option is packaging up Corey Hart in a deal, which is not a bad idea either. But if the Brewers plan on sticking around for more than a couple of years, they need to not be afraid to ship out some of their quality young guys when they're need higher salaries. If you sell them while they're still (sort of) cheap, the return becomes longevity in your success.
Ultimately, I believe Braun should be the casualty. He has the lowest isopatience of any outfielder and will ultimately yield the biggest return as far as saving cash and the quality of prospects. In my opinion, it's a big win for this team. Braun isn't the guy putting seats in the stands (Prince Fielder is), and while some people may think the Brewers are bailing, they'll soon realize they're poised to continue their run of success.
The question is: Will they do it? Would you do it?