COMMENTARY | With the hot stove season underway, the Atlanta Braves have already been tied to several trade rumors and some speculation about potential free-agent signings.
But as the dust settles and the overly optimistic chatter about Brandon Phillips or David Price quiets down, fans can expect some more subtle transactions regarding rosters and contracts to get finalized. These bits of news won't make the same splashy headlines, but they are the lifeblood of the Braves' blueprint for long-term success.
The Braves are on the outside looking in when it comes to the explosion of local television revenue, which will make it increasingly difficult to sign a high-priced free agent. They signed a long-term television deal right before the market for such deals took off, and, as such, earn a fraction of what teams with more recent television deals are making. Even smaller-market clubs like the Cleveland Indians are doing far better than the Braves on their local television deal. As such, cheap homegrown talent is going to have to be the key.
Here are a few contract decisions I would push for in the somewhat unlikely scenario of general manager Frank Wren or team president John Schuerholz looking for my opinion:
Lock up Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman
Two of the brightest young stars in the Atlanta system, first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Jason Heyward, are arbitration eligible. This brings with it cost uncertainty, which should make the front office nervous.
Heyward saw a huge pay bump in his first year of arbitration for the 2013 season, and figures to see another large jump in salary for 2014 into the $5-6 million range. Freeman is arbitration eligible for the first time, and he couldn't have timed it any better. He was arguably the Braves' most valuable and important offensive weapon for the 2013 season. He figures to see a raise of at least $3 or $4 million for the 2014 season, and that number will get bigger for 2015 and 2016.
Both players are young enough and talented enough that if they reach free agency without a team extension, they will likely receive monster deals that will be too rich for Atlanta. Heyward would reach free agency as a 27-year-old, right at the age where advanced analytic models predict peak performance. Freeman is just a month younger than Heyward but will reach free agency a year later, still well within the peak performance time frame.
The only chance the Braves have of seeing these homegrown talents play their best years in Atlanta is to lock up long-term extensions now. The closer a player gets to free agency, the less incentive he has to sign a club extension. But a contract that guarantees a higher salary during these arbitration years and buys out the first year or two of free agency offers financial security that a young player would have a tough time leaving on the table.
I'd offer Heyward 5 years and $55 million in order to buy out his remaining two arbitration seasons and his first three years of free agency. I'd offer Freeman 5 years and $45 million in order to buy out all three arbitration years and the first two years of free agency. These two players are more than capable of serving as the offensive core for the next half decade.
Pass on extending Medlen, Johnson and even Kimbrel
As much as it would ache to see these three contributors playing elsewhere, I just don't see them as being worth the long-term investment the way that Freeman and Heyward would be.
Kris Medlen has been a steady, good but not great starting pitcher with flashes of dominance in his young career. He has rebounded admirably from Tommy John surgery and been a key piece of the rotation success over the last two years. I just think his overall production combined with his injury history provides enough of a reason to avoid a long-term contract.
Johnson had a surprise breakout year for Atlanta after basically serving as a throw-in piece in the Justin Upton trade. He challenged for the National League batting title deep into September, filling in for the huge absence of Chipper Jones at third base. He certainly deserves a ton of praise for what he did for the team in 2013. He just doesn't have the type of tools that demand an extension. He's a mediocre base runner and even worse defensively. He doesn't possess the home run potential to make up for these other deficiencies. As hard as it is to believe, there's a pretty good chance that his success in 2013 was due to some good fortune.
Now, for Craig Kimbrel, the hardest decision to make in this group of talented players. Kimbrel has been irrefutably dominant as the closer for the Braves, and 29 other teams would love to hear that the Braves shut down reliever was available. Because of his gaudy save and strikeout totals, Kimbrel might be in line for a huge raise in his first arbitration year. Unfortunately, the salary he's going to command just isn't justifiable for 50 or 60 innings a year.
That's just too painful to think about, and why I'm probably out of a front-office job for at least another season. Let's get back to our fantasy trades: a grab bag of prospects for David Price, B.J. Upton straight up for Matt Kemp and Dan Uggla for either Brandon Phillips or a tub of sunflower seeds.
Patrick Richardson is a longtime follower of the Atlanta Braves who started playing t-ball right as Atlanta's record-setting run of division titles began. He is an amateur but enthusiastic sabermetrician.
- Sports & Recreation
- Atlanta Braves
- Jason Heyward
- Freddie Freeman