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?

Meanwhile:

  • 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.

However:

  • 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.

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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?

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