Has Baseball Money Taken Atlanta Out of the Game?

The following is a list of the major free agents (or potential free agents) that have signed with new teams thus far this off-season with deals exceeding $5 million per year in bold (source: MLBTR):

* – Contract options exercised; not true free agents; ** – Mutual options exercised; *** – New Contract in lieu of option

This list technically does not include Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez – eventually inked to a 3 year, $12 million deal with the Phillies back in late August.

Brian McCann has yet to sign, but it is looking strongly as if he will be in the $15+ million club – probably exceeding the deal signed by Yadier Molina in March 2012 (5 years, $75 million).  The Next Big Japanese pitcher – Masahiro Tanaka – has yet to be posted.  He is likely to be in the biggest bidding war of the year.

I won’t muddle the point about whether some of these deals were good or overpays (Byrd?, Ruiz?), but we’ll instead use the list to illustrate the point that the money is flowing – early and often thus far this Fall.  Stay with me a bit…


It’s a Money Thing

This year, new money is available to all 30 major league teams in the form of new national television contracts, which is said to be kicking in something in the range of 22 to 25 million dollars per team (depending on the source).  ESPN’s yearly portion jumps from $360 million to $700 million; FOX Network will be at $500 million annually.  Turner Sports is kicking in roughly $300 million more – for a new total of approximately $1.5 billion… which would be as much as $50 million each – up from half that figure in 2013.

So suddenly, teams even with little money to spend suddenly have cash – and are spending it:  16 different clubs are represented in that list above.  Oh, and it’s still only November 19th.

The Braves?  Thus far, the public pronouncements indicate that their 2014 payroll will also rise:  from $90 million to $100 million.  And this is after a 2013 campaign in which the payroll ceiling was said to be $98 million following a re-tooling of their own (bad) TV contract.

So wait a minute… I can do math:  this means that the Braves have managed to look under the cushions, break a few piggy banks, and found another $25-to-30-ish million to spend, and the payroll only goes up by… $10 million?  Over the past 2 seasons?


  • Reed Johnson has an option declined over a matter of a $1.45 million option.  In isolation, you can justify this as a baseball decision:  Reed’s injury severely limited his availability, and his age is a factor.  Additionally, Joey Terdoslavich can handle Reed’s role.
  • Tim Hudson‘s signed with the Giants.  This despite his 9 years in Atlanta; despite the need for his experience and mentoring; despite many public statements about how much he means to the club, the clubhouse, and their desire to get him back.  Indication are that Atlanta was willing to match their last contract price with Tim – but not the $2 million extra (in after-tax dollars) that San Francisco offered.
  • Last year, David Ross saw his money doubled by the Red Sox.

Heck, the Braves didn’t even finish second in the Tim Hudson sweepstakes:


Am I missing something here?

Atlanta will never be a top payroll club.  2013 Opening day payrolls show them somewhere between 15th and 19th ranked, depending how you count certain things.  Either way, they’re in a group of other teams that include Baltimore, Milwaukee, the Mets, and Arizona.  Cincinnati and the Cubs will likely come back to that pack this off-season as they’re shedding some payroll.

I am not at all saying that the Braves need to be in that top group… but top 10 would be reasonable for the 9th ranked Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States.  Moreover, the Braves have virtually no competition in their region.  Their nearest MLB neighbor is the Rays – 457 miles to the South – and they can hardly draw fans down there unless the Yankees are in town.

Right now, the 10th ranked payroll belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays ($118.5 million).  The White Sox are just ahead with $119.5m; St. Louis follows with $115.2 million.  We should expect some of these numbers to go up this year. So yes, while that’s a 20% increase over the stated goal of a $100m payroll (and likely 25% higher than what we may actually see), those numbers are not that far out of reach.  And certainly an extra $25 million in payroll should generate a lineup that’s much more competitive overall.

No, obviously payroll isn’t the only thing… and we’ve seen first-hand the results of payroll spent poorly.  But what we’re seeing now could amount to a penny-wise, pound foolish approach.  Analysts are already saying something that admittedly surprised me:  that Tim Hudson‘s deal might look like a bargain – a “steal”, even – if he returns to form in the Spring (and frankly, there’s little reason not to expect so).  The Reed Johnson option is also looking like an odd (though predictable) decision.  At least Jonny Venters was signed… to a deal that was well below the MLBTR estimate for him:  $1.625m vs. $2.3 million.


  • When the recent Cuban defectors came onto the market, the Braves had been mentioned as possible suitors for at least Guerrero and Gonzalez.  But they did not win either bid.
  • When Jake Peavy was available at the 2013 trade deadline, Atlanta opted out over money (clearly, it wasn’t about prospects, given the Red Sox deal).
  • When Zack Greinke was available at the 2013 trade deadline, Atlanta opted out (though likely due to the ‘rental’ nature of the deal).
  • When Zack Greinke was subsequently available as a free agent, Atlanta did not get involved in the bidding.

You could say “Well, the club did step up with some recent deals.”  Okay, let’s take a look:

  • B.J. Upton.  I am convinced that this was a strategy move on their part:  to identify the free agent Center Fielder most willing to sign early.  That probably got them a better price overall (notwithstanding the market for Michael Bourn that evaporated to the point that he had to ultimately take a lot less with Cleveland).
  • Justin Upton.  First off, this never would have happened without his brother already being signed on.  Second, this was as much about trading contracts as anything else:  Atlanta was not willing to give Martin Prado $10 million per year; Justin got the same in 2013 (though yes, his deal jumps to $14.5 m in 2014/15).  We also got Chris Johnson, who was clearly the steal of that deal.
  • Dan Uggla.  On paper, this looked like an obvious move – and actually started off okay when Dan slugged 36 homers in 2011.  In terms of dollars-per-homer, that was a deal.  Had he kept going at that rate, his contract would hardly have looked like an overpay.

So even these deals could be construed as attempts to save money even as it was being spent.  That’s hardly a bad thing, but it still points toward my overall point:

There’s clearly an organizational pattern developing: spend as little as possible… heck, even pitching coach Roger McDowell had to start entertaining offers to get a raise.

So how is that now going to play as Frank Wren attempts to coax some of the young stars (Heyward, Freeman, Simmons, et al) into contract extensions to buy out some of their free agent years?  We do know that he made some kind of attempt to do so last year and was turned down.  This year that would seem to be an even larger priority.

So Now What?

Atlanta seems to have three priorities to take care of before next April:

  • Replace Tim Hudson.  The ‘shopping list’ requires an Ace… or so they’ve said.  Everybody knows what it takes to get one:  money and/or prospects.  It will require a bold move.  But now the urgency meter has been raised with Tim’s departure.
  • Move Dan Uggla elsewhere.  I guess you can say that this is another money-saving thing, but it’s also about production.  The productive thing to do is likely to make a deal with Cincinnati to bring Brandon Phillips home to Atlanta.  But that’s also a move that will require money to be spent.  That isn’t the only possible move, of course:  Tommy La Stella is my own choice for that job.  But eating Uggla’s contract will nonetheless require a bold move.
  • Extend the Young StarsJason Heyward, Kris Medlen and Justin Upton will be free in 2015; Freddie Freeman in 2016.  Many are arbitration eligible.  Let’s see who the team wants to keep.  It will take a strong commitment to get them to sign on for 5-6-7-8 years.  Many clubs have done this:  Cincy with Joey Votto.  Colorado with Troy Tulowitzki.  That’s just two quick examples among many – virtually every club has at least one.  The last time Atlanta did this?  Brian McCann.  It’s been a while.


The rising tide of TV money is set to raise all teams’ boats this year.  But will Atlanta’s boat rise as well?  Or will they throw out an anchor and be swamped?

Tags: Atlanta Braves Payroll

  • http://www.tomahawktake.com/ Chris Headrick

    I had read a couple of times on MLB Trade rumors that the Braves offered Tim less than the 9mil he’s been getting the last four years, and that he simply said no. I’ve also read they offered him the same, so which is it? I don’t think they wanted Tim to stay, despite comments to the contrary, and Tim, closing in retirement, wanted more and declined the lesser Braves offer because of it. We can fuss at the Braves, but Tim had a part to play in this as well. If he’s accepted 9 mil the last 4 years, and never been “money hungry”, what was the offer the Braves actually made?

    • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

      1st offer was below his prior deal; saw a tweet (alas, I could not find it to cite) indicating that they later raised that offer back to the $9m level. I admit saying that I didn’t believe there would be this robust a market for him (11 offers! – Rosenthal tweet, 20 mins. ago), so I expected an $8m deal myself.

      But the market is clearly going higher – for everybody – so far.

      • http://www.tomahawktake.com/ Chris Headrick

        It just looks, increasingly so, and not to anyone’s real surprise, that the Braves are about to shoot themselves in the foot, if not already.

        • cothjrr24

          Unless there’s a significant trade, the Braves cannot afford to sign anyone to a multi-year contract as they wouldn’t even be able to afford their own arb-eligible players in 2015, much less a FA’s salary beyond ’14. They’re already at 82 million for 20 players. Hudson would have been the one and done deal for the Braves if they could have gotten him on a 1-year deal, of which they could not.
          If the Braves want to get flexible again, they’ll have to sell high on a few players (Kimbrel?, Chris Johnson?, Medlen?), replacing them with pre-arb players. Arb-cases are already enough of a nightmare in 2014, but the list and the money is mind-boggling for 2015. Packaging a few players together (Chris Johnson, Medlen, Kimbrel, Uggla,) for a young package (Profar, Feliz) would greatly increase this year’s and future years’ payroll flexibility. That trade, although highly unlikely, would open up 20-30 million this year (depending on how much TX would eat of Uggla’s salary), providing ample room for extensions for our young core of players. Becoming Tampa Bay with more cash flow isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

          • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

            Ah, and therein lies my point. They are gonna have to either step up or be content to be … I’ll be charitable and say “creative.”

          • cothjrr24

            Agreed. However, I’d replace creative and go with “crafty”

          • fireboss

            Wren already thinks he’s a composite of Sheurholz and Drombowsky in seeking out bargains and making shrewd deals. Unfortunately he’s not.

          • cothjrr24

            Got some animosity for Wren, huh? What gives?

          • Braves1976

            I am not sure it’s animosity so much as him calling it as it is. I agree with pretty much every point he’s made so far but hey maybe we’re just both Wren bashers, lol.

          • fireboss

            Not animosity, I don’t know the man and can’t give an opinion of him as a person. I simply don’t think he’s as good at his job as many do. I see him in the middle tier of GMs and there’s a laundry list of things behind my belief but this isn’t the venue to list them. He does some things well but he’s awful in others, like signing free agents; not in the Jim Hendry, Omar Minaya class of bad but certainly out of the top tier in that area

          • http://www.tomahawktake.com/ Chris Headrick

            The problem is that TB always has motivation to get deals done, even if they make not make sense to others, and Atlanta, typically, has little motivation to think outside of their typical box. TB’s culture is different, and Atlanta isn’t going to change overnight. Creative indeed, Alan. (See below)

          • cothjrr24

            Unless payroll is significantly increased, the Braves will be forced to change in 2015..

          • fireboss

            Who’s going to force them?

          • cothjrr24

            The payroll will. The reason they didn’t offer Huddy a 2-year deal is because they can’t pay the money the 2nd year. The arb-cases for 2015 are a nightmare!

          • fireboss

            I doubt Wren knows how to use the Rays’ model but, if they were going to start that Kimbrel and Freeman would be traded next off season to maximize their return. Not something the I’m looking forward to

  • fireboss

    I believe that this whole “we want Huddy to stay” thing is spin for the uniformed fan. If they had offered him 2 @ 9 immediately he might be wearing a Tomahawk now. Instead they tried to low ball him and insulted him in the process.The Giants and others looked at the market, saw Hudson as an opportunity to get a dependable high character guy to stabilize the rotation, told him how well he fit their plans and offered him good money. Huddy liked the area and being treated wanted instead of taken for granted and left.

    There is absolutely no reason to believe the trade for Justin Upton had anything to do with BJ being in Atlanta. JUP’s no trade list did not include the Braves and everyone else with players the D’Backs wanted had dropped out of the running by the time the Braves made contact about him. Towers was under pressure form his owner to move Upton and had already signed players to replace him – at least in theory. So when Wren called he was ready to deal. The ignition switch was Wren low balling an extension offer to Martin Prado and being rejected by a man who had made it clear he loved playing in Atlanta. (I see a pattern emerging here.)

    According to Wren after the signing of the elder Upton, BJ had always been the man he personally wanted. The Braves wining and dining of BJ back that up. The fact that the nearest offer for BJ was reportedly an AAV of $11M for 4 by the Phillies makes it even more apparent that having lost once to a flashier team (Burnett) he would not let it happen again. He paid no attention to the numbers nor did he do what he said he was going to and sign a leadoff man to replace Bourn. Nothing in BJ’s numbers indicated he could do that job well, his longest time in that role was 2009 when his 450+ PA landed him a line of 241/316/372.

    This is not a question of too little payroll. This is a situation where money has been wasted on players who weren’t worth it as he tried to be thrifty and shrewd and ended up being neither.

    • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

      I think we’ll have to disagree on some aspects of that… and mostly because we’ll never get a definitive answer.

      I do recall some reports that Wren wanted to settle the CF situation quickly last off-season, so (after a couple of modest inquiries about Span and Revere), he did indeed go all-in for Upton. That is, in fact, the closest thing I can cite toward truly opening the vault and spending for a player… though I still argue that they did so to _avoid_ a bidding war for the remaining & seemingly lesser candidates later. And that’s where I expect we differ.

      Regardless of the exact Justin scenario, you’re right: the pattern was already emerging in how Prado was treated. I suppose you could now also include McCann in that list, though his contract is gonna be so over-the-top as to be out of any reason… I’ll certainly excuse Wren for that one.

      Finally, yes: the merits of whether money was spent wisely is certainly open for examination (a point yielded in the post), but at this time, I’m calling that a separate topic. Unfortunately, you could also say that having multiple bad contracts on the books would only increase the Caution meter for future expenditures. Thus, I don’t really expect any change until either (a) those contracts are cleared; or (b) the production from them improves markedly.

  • Lee Trocinski

    I think the cat is out of the bag on extending players below market value. Players now know there is plenty of money to get out there, so they’ll be less inclined to sign extensions, which will hurt this young ATL team quite a bit. Free agency has been down the past few years, but now I think it’s ready to emerge to the forefront again.

    That being said, you don’t want to buy high on any extensions you can get. I don’t believe anyone here is advocating this, but extending CJ this offseason would likely prove to be a poor decision. Freeman would also probably not be too cost-effective, since I’m pretty sure he was near his peak level this past season. Heyward seems like a good candidate to buy low, but he hasn’t been keen to an extension at all. Minor would be my extension choice in the rotation, but he, Medlen, and Teheran all had DIPS-lucky seasons, which makes me leery of paying full price for those ERAs.

    This doesn’t make the decisions any better, but the B.J. and Uggla signings aren’t quite as hurtful now, since that money isn’t worth as many wins as it was when they were signed. Instead of being about a 3-win/yr market value, B.J. may only need to be worth 2 WAR/yr to be market value, which is much more possible to achieve. The teams that extended their stars before this offseason are now at a great advantage, and teams like ATL are swimming upstream to catch up.

  • Matthew Jones

    Not to throw salt into the wound, but another target that seemingly the Braves may have been looking at for the rotation has signed elsewhere. Josh Johnson apparently is signing with the Padres on a one year, $8m base salary plus incentives deal. Now, not to beat a dead horse, but the Braves couldn’t come up with $8-$10m for a potential ace-type starter if he was healthy? I know we end up in the same arguments that pertained to Huddy (is he actually healthy? How much does he have left truly? etc.), but that seems like a steal for the Padres.

    I am wondering if the days of players wanting to come to Atlanta as free agents has finally passed due to some of the issues of veterans contracts and Frank Wren’s handling of them (see: Smoltz, Glavine, Hinske, Hudson, Prado, et al). I know that there’s more at play than just one person, but I’m a bit disturbed by how the Braves are seemingly going in an opposite direction for signings.

    • fireboss

      Johnson could be a top of the rotation starter but the reality is that you have to insert “if healthy” in any sentence involving him. Never thought he was actually high up the option board but of course the Braves have signed worse lately.

      While we haven’t become the Marlins, we do seem to have changed the way we treat players. Maybe it’s just that we know more about it these days but there are other indications that things have changed and not for the bettre

    • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

      I think Dan Haren would be the safer bet if we go that direction.

      • Matthew Jones

        Don’t disagree on that, but is Haren even considering the Braves as an option? I guess that’s my true gripe.

    • Lee Trocinski

      It was a lot easier to be “loyal” to players when they were a large-market team. Were the Braves supposed to give a 42-year-old Smoltz $5M+ coming off shoulder problems? The Glavine thing was rough, but he only struck out 5 of the 68 minor league hitters he faced in his rehab, so that wasn’t going to work at the majors. We may have lowballed Prado, but he was traded for two players who did better than him this year, so that wasn’t a bad deal. Hinske is pretty clearly done as a hitter. 2/18 might have kept Huddy, but do you want to spend that much, or more, on a 38-year-old who is no better than average?

      Teams aren’t loyal to their players as a whole anymore, mostly because so few players stick around for many years. If you’re not trying to get younger and more talented, you’re falling behind.

      • fireboss

        It isn;t so much that Glavine and Smoltz were let go it’s HOW they were told or rather found out. Prado’s move to Arizona slowed his start but in May he was .317/.338/.374 and then he got injured but played through it in June. From 1 July forward his slash was .319/.369/.487/.856 with 38 runs, 56 RBI and an RE24 of 16.80. During that period the player who did better than him (CJ) has a line of .320/.349/.451/.801 with 31 runs 45 RBI and an RE24 of 11.44 He struck out 64 times and walked 13 during that stretch while Prado struck out only 53 times all year. Prado’s ISO for last season was .135 while Johnson’s was .136. Prado’s RC 76 CJ’s was 78. All season we heard how CJ’s BAbip was unsustainable and he did finish with a 390, Prado had the reverse finishing with a .288 Babip. CJ’s was 50 points above his usual while Prado’s was 40 points below his. I’d argue that if Prado hadn’t injured and simply had his average June of 304/349/456 his finished with better numbers than CJ.

        I wanted the JUP trade but I wish Wren had given Prado what I predicted he was worth and what the DBacks extended him for as soon as he arrived instead of low balling him. Prado is simply a better player than CJ. Neither you nor I believe the CJ was saw last year is the CJ we’ll see in the future.I have confidence that Prado will continue to be just who he’s shown himself to be, a .293/.343/.432/.774 hitter who plays solid if not spectacular defense anywhere you put him.

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  • fireboss

    Sorry I didn’t respond sooner you reply got caught in the moderation line because of the link and i just saw it. I understand the way the Rays make their trades, if they had Teixeira in 2008 they would have held him until the end of the season and taking the draft pick instead of trading him for Kotchman like Wren inexplicably did.

    I really want to extend Freeman but we’ve seen both Gattis and Joey T play first. While Gattis defense isn’t good and Joey’s bat isn’t there yet it could be argued that a nice package could entice a trade especially if Freddie doesn’t agree to a home town priced extension like Longoria. Many here have argued here Freddie is as good as he will be (I disagree) and should be traded because first baseman are easy to find and he could bring us multiple prospects.