theScore’s baseball editor Jonah Birenbaum wrote what you see below for our official app (which you should totally download) and I think it belongs on Getting Blanked, too. Follow Jonah on twitter and enjoy!
Baseball’s evolving economic landscape, with national television contracts effectively emptying barrels of cash around the league, privileges players who can hang around. Arbitration-eligible players are always victims of precedent, and the cost-controlling nature of the process limits the earning potential for players who have just a few years of big-league service time.
But there are no rules in today’s open market. Players with six years of service time who felt slighted by the arbitration process are now capable of landing lucrative, ludicrous multi-year deals from cash-rich teams diverting their new monies back into their payroll. It’s precisely this market that allowed Phil Hughes, the homer-prone author of a 5.19 ERA last season, to land a three-year, $24-million deal. It’s precisely this market that allowed Jason Vargas, the soft-throwing southpaw with a career 112 FIP- (where 100 is league average) to score a four-year, $32-million deal. You get the point.
Of course, this evolution does little to mitigate the gulf between baseball’s “haves” and “have nots” — the Rays are simply never going to outbid the Yankees for anyone, regardless of new national television revenues — but one consequence of market inflation is the destruction of baseball’s middle class. Mid-market teams that could once use a player’s arbitration years to assess whether a long-term extension makes sense no longer have the luxury of time. The allure of the open market is simply too great for talented players with three or four years of service to forego free agency in favor of the security of a discounted extension.
The Atlanta Braves fall into this unfortunate category — the club ranked 13th in attendance last season — and are beset with a local television contract that will keep them out of baseball’s economic elite for quite some time. This reality is best articulated by Fangraphs’ Wendy Thurm:
The Braves — well, the Braves are a victim of bad deals and bad timing. Liberty Media bought the Braves from Turner Broadcasting in 2007 and inherited 25-year local TV contracts negotiated by Turner at below-market rates. We weren’t able to track down the Braves yearly rights fees but we do know that the contracts significantly hamper the Braves’ payroll decisions.
The Braves’ impressive track record of on-field success only complicates the matter, as they’ve developed a taste for winning in Atlanta. The fans continue to show up, but as CEO Terry McGuirk said back in 2012, even fielding a $94 million payroll — a decidedly modest number, by today’s standards — leaves the club with “no profitability, no free cash flow.” Essentially, this means that high-profile free agents probably aren’t coming to Atlanta unless they’re abnormally fond of peaches.
As such, the Braves are looking to beat the system. And so far, it looks like they’re doing a pretty darn good job of it. As demonstrated this offseason, the Braves have developed a new strategy for circumventing the open market; the Braves have effectively reallocated the risk of the open market towards players they already know and love. By handing out long-term extensions to homegrown players who either aren’t yet eligible for salary arbitration or who are experiencing their first trip through the process, the Braves are privileging calculated risk and inconclusive reward for the high-risk, high-reward mercenaries of the open market.
Andrelton Simmons could be a superstar. Craig Kimbrel could be one of history’s great closers. Freddie Freeman probably has a few more All-Star nominations in his future. Julio Teheran might contend for a Cy Young one day. The Braves are banking on this. Quite literally.
Of course, Simmons’ on-base woes could worsen as the league adjusts to him. Kimbrel could blow out his arm on Opening Day this year. Freeman’s BABIP could regress and see him turn into Lyle Overbay. Left-handed batters and turning over a lineup could undo Teheran’s efforts to become a mid-rotation starter.
And that would suck. But, when you’re a team of modest means, this is probably the best way to hang onto your future stars. And as much as it would suck to be paying an ineffective Teheran $8 million in 2018, you could be paying 41-year-old Albert Pujols $30 million in 2021.