One month ago, it seemed like this offseason might go down in history with a title like "2014: The Winter the Braves Hibernated." The biggest story involving the team wasn't about a move they had made, but about the one that got away, catcher Brian McCann who left as a free agent and signed with the Yankees. There wasn't much else happening; no one got excited about the addition of Gavin Floyd or Ryan Doumit, but really, could you blame them?
To be fair, if there were a winter for the Braves to do very little, it was this one. A year ago, the club addressed its outfield concerns, at least notionally, by adding the Upton brothers, acquired Chris Johnson (as part of the Justin Upton trade) to take over for Chipper Jones at third, and prepared to turn shortstop over to Andrelton Simmons, while their pitching staff would be invigorated by the usual influx of young arms, led by Julio Teheran. Having done all of that in 2013, the team had the luxury of more or less standing pat this winter. Early on they patched catcher sufficiently (again, at least on paper) to allow top prospect Christian Bethancourt some time to develop. That done, they rested. With a limited budget and the bulk of their key players, a core of young talent in various stages of arbitration eligibility, under team control, the only thing left for them to do was resolve those cases.
The Braves had 14 arbitration-eligible players this offseason, and after non-tendering three of them (Elliot Johnson, Cristhian Martinez, and Paul Janish), they reached agreements with eight players. Not surprisingly, the Braves had a harder time when it came to their top talent. Unable to reach an agreement prior to the deadline with Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, and Craig Kimbrel, it seemed that they might all be headed to arbitration, especially since general manager Frank Wren said, "We have an organizational philosophy of the filing date is our last date to negotiate prior to a hearing. We're done," which seemed awfully final. With that statement, the Braves seemingly had resigned themselves to a series of contractual hammerings over the next few years, with no cost-controlling long-term deals in the offing.
At some point, however, the Braves realized that they really had no other choice, and not only reached terms for this season, but managed to sign all three young stars to arbitration-avoiding extensions. Heyward came first, and he got the shortest contract, a two-year, $13.3 million deal that bought out his final two seasons of arbitration. On the same day, the Braves announced an eight-year, $135 million deal with Freeman, making him the de facto face of the franchise through 2019. On Sunday, despite a huge gap in arbitration filings, the Braves reached a four-year, $42 million deal with Kimbrel. As if that flurry of activity weren't enough, the Braves also reached an agreement with starting pitcher Julio Teheran, who agreed to a six-year, $32.4 million deal with the Braves, a deal that is not without risk given his inexperience, but could be a steal later on if he continues to develop.
Despite Wren's insistence that the Braves were done talking, these deals seemed inevitable as a form of preventative maintenance for a team that is indefinitely on a budget. A lot happened at once, but don't confuse activity with progress. It's important to realize that all four of these deals were born out of the organization's need to kick the can a few years down the road.
The Braves' dilemma is a transparent one, and the deals with Heyward, Kimbrel, Freeman, and Teheran are the first steps to addressing concerns beyond the 2014 season. Given the anemic state of the farm system when it comes to position players and the budgetary limitations that will prevent them from being major players in free agency, the players that the Braves have in the majors are the ones they are going to have for awhile (Bethancourt and right-hander Lucas Sims are the obvious exceptions) and they are only going to get more expensive. As such, there were only three routes open to the Braves -- go year by year through arbitration, sign the players to long-term contracts that gradually made the players more expensive, but not as explosively as a series of arbitration losses would have, or get rid of them altogether. The latter wasn't a realistic possibility, the Braves not being the Jeffrey Loria Marlins (there is, thankfully, still a wide difference between being on a budget and being morally bankrupt). The path the Braves chose was the closest they could come to controlling the inevitably inflationary ride they are on.
All teams are getting more cash to spend through revenue sharing and new national television deals; the biggest financial separator now comes in the form of local television deals, and that's where the Braves get left behind. When the team was sold to Liberty Media in 2007, they were locked into a very disadvantageous deal. Over the course of the 20-year contract, which still has 13 years to run, the Braves are expected to net between $200 and $400 million total, which is nothing when you consider that some teams like the Dodgers and Phillies will earn over $100 per season with their new television deals.
The Braves aren't a small-market team in a conventional sense, but the lack of money, particularly until they can improve revenue through increased attendance at their new stadium starting in 2017, is starting to force them to operate like one. In 2003, under different ownership, the Braves had the third largest payroll in the majors ($106 million). Since then, the Braves have remained static. They haven't been in the top ten for spending since 2006 and they've fallen to the middle of the pack for the fourth consecutive season. The $90 million spent last season put them 18th. They spent less than the Pirates, a team not exactly known for their extravagance.
The obvious counterpoint is that when you have a young core of talent, the payroll will naturally be less since you're not paying players $20 million per season each, but given the financial constraints from the weak television deal, it's fair to assume that going forward the Braves will have to make tough decisions based on payroll. It's hard to know if Liberty Media will keep the purse strings cinched, particularly if the team remains competitive, but considering that their cash position isn't improving, their payroll going forward will likely remain close to $100 million. While on the surface these contract extensions may make it seem like the owners have suddenly decided to abandon a fiscally conservative approach, it's really just smoke and mirrors, a little spending now to avoid more in the future.
That doesn't make it a bad strategy; in fact, quite the opposite, since buying out these players limits the team's exposure. There's obviously some risk, especially with Teheran, who is still inexperienced, but despite the negative examples provided by Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, hitters are fairly linear in their development. The two defunct vets are weird outliers, and with any luck, each will recover some value this year. There's some flexibility in these deals, as well. Setting aside the fact that Freeman will make over $20 million in each the final three years of his contract and, given some likely regression from a BABIP-fueled 2013 means that, even in a world starved for first basemen, he won't be an MVP-level player in most seasons, the Braves haven't over-committed themselves financially. That's especially apparent when you consider that after 2015, both Justin Upton and Uggla will be free agents. That should give them plenty of room to wiggle room to stay under $100 million, and they'd still have some money to play with to staff the rest of the team (and potentially pay Andrelton Simmons and/or Mike Minor, who might be next for a contract extension).
There is still a lot of work for the Braves to do, however. The deals are relatively inexpensive in the short term, but as the salaries escalate the team will reenter the budget crunch. Some teams have the luxury of testing their talent for a bit longer, but the Braves had to say, "Close enough" to keep their finances manageable. It's an approach that is more admirable than just letting these guys walk as free agents and starting over, but it doesn't improve the team so much as lock what it has in place. The players they have chosen to retain are, at the very least, nascent stars, but lost in all of the excitement about these extensions is that this is still the same team that hasn't gotten beyond the LDS since 2001. Yes, they won 94 and 96 games in the last two seasons, but something still seems to be missing.
Maybe that something is as small as a functional Upton or Uggla -- that they won 96 games while dragging two sub-replacement anchors is a miracle on its own -- or maybe not having to sweat next year's salary will be enough to help some of the core perform better. Alternatively, that something might have to come from outside the organization, which would mean that securing the core was only half the battle, a defense of the status quo rather than a step forward.
The Braves haven't solved all of their problems, but they've at least removed some of the roster uncertainty for the coming seasons, leaving them in a much better place than they were in even a few weeks ago when I wrote that in the long term they might have to trade Kimbrel to free up some money. The Braves recognized that, at least for now, their best chance to survive the coming crunch is to compromise and negotiate. They've bought themselves a couple more years to see if that strategy is a winning one.