While news of this magnitude would usually be cause for celebration, fans may soon come to the realization that these signings could be the thing that ushers in the end of closer Craig Kimbrel's tenure in Atlanta.
The Braves signed their newly minted leadoff hitter to a two-year, $13.3 million deal to keep the two sides away from the arbitration table. Both camps made news earlier this year when they were unable to come to an agreement when only $300,000 separated their contract demands.
Heyward was asking for $5.5 million, while the Braves were only willing to go as high as $5.2 million. The two seemed destined for an ugly battle over the MLB equivalent of pocket change, but, instead, Atlanta reversed course and decided to give Heyward even more money than he was asking.
This new deal ensures Heyward will be with the club at least one season longer, as he was sent to become an unrestricted free agent in 2015. And if Heyward plays the way he did at the end of last season, the $7.8 million he will earn in Year 2 would save Atlanta money over what Heyward would have been able to demand on the open market -- but it is a gamble.
Although Heyward batted .322 when manager Fredi Gonzalez moved him up to the first slot in the batting order, Atlanta's All-Star outfielder struggled for much of the season. Heyward hit just .121 in April, and it took him until June 9 to even raise his average to .200.
It's hard to argue with the Freeman deal after the monster year Atlanta's first baseman had in 2013. The Braves nailed down Freeman's services until 2021, thanks to a massive eight-year, $135 million extension.
Freeman hit .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs on his way to being selected to his first All-Star team in 2013.
The only problem with Freeman's deal is that it may have come a little too early. Freeman was only asking for $5.75 million, with the Braves offering $4.5 million. Even if Freeman came out and had another fantastic season in 2014, his second year of arbitration would still not have demanded the $16.875 annual salary his new deal is worth.
The Braves likely saved themselves money in the long run by locking Freeman up now, but, are Kimbrel's days in Atlanta now numbered as a result of them jumping the gun? Either way, at least the franchise no longer has the dubious distinction of having handed the club's richest contract ever to B.J. Upton.
Craig Kimbrel's Future
Unlike with Freeman and Heyward, the Braves are nowhere close to Kimbrel's salary demands and will almost assuredly be forced to air the dirty laundry over an arbitration table.
As the strikeout-inducing bookend to Atlanta's MLB-leading bullpen, Kimbrel has been nothing short of Mariano Rivera-like for the Braves over his first three full seasons. Since 2011, Kimbrel has recorded 138 saves, including a career high 50 in 2013. After posting a microscopic 1.01 ERA in 2012, Kimbrel followed up that performance last season with a 1.21 clip.
The problem is, as one of the best closers in baseball, Kimbrel suddenly wants to be paid like, well, one of the best closers in baseball.
Kimbrel is seeking $9 million for the 2014 season, while the Braves have only offered $6.55 million. If the two sides are unable to work out an agreement themselves, they will take the case to the arbiter, who may rule for no dollar figure other than the player's asking price or the team's offer.
Generally, fans side with the player in these types of contract talks, but, if Kimbrel wins and is awarded $9 million this season, he may not last the entire year in an Atlanta uniform.
The issue here will not be the $9 million for 2014, even though that number would be the richest first-year arbitration salary for a closer in MLB history. Atlanta is worried about Year 2 and 3 of Kimbrel's arbitration-eligibility. Kimbrel would be set to earn $13 million the second time around, and more than $16 million in his final year of arbitration.
Even though Liberty Media, the company that owns the Braves, is a multi-billion dollar behemoth with enough resources to run the Braves as though they were the National League version of the New York Yankees, they have been giving Atlanta around $90 million in allowance money for player salaries each season.
Freeman's deal may be back-loaded somewhat, the exact yearly allocations have yet to be made public, but, given his $16.875 annual salary, Atlanta would already be over their $90 million payroll number for next season before Kimbrel's case is even heard.
Kimbrel's future in Atlanta may come down to Liberty Media's willingness to let the Braves keep their closer, as well as how Jonny Venters rebounds from his Tommy John surgery. Atlanta's lefty setup man put up a 1.84 ERA in 2012 as part of the Braves' three-headed bullpen monster with Kimbrel and Eric O'Flaherty, but an elbow injury caused Venters to miss most of 2013.
The Braves re-signed Venters to a $1.65 million deal, and, if he suddenly shows the ability to be the same player he was before the injury, the Braves may like his contract demands just a little better than paying Kimbrel over $10 million per year to pitch one inning a game -- no matter how dominant that one inning may be.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Braves for over 20 years. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
- Sports & Recreation
- Craig Kimbrel
- Atlanta Braves
- Jason Heyward
- Freddie Freeman