Atlanta Braves Morning Chop: Baseball’s Unfortunate Trend

Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Former Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones hugs left fielder Matt Kemp (27) before a game against the Detroit Tigers at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The labor rules negotiated via ownership and players has created exactly the kind of system that fans lament.  Unfortunately, the newest CBA is going to lead to more of this trend, not less.

The Atlanta Braves had Chipper Jones.  The San Diego Padres had Tony Gwynn.  The Baltimore Orioles had Cal Ripken Jr.  The Yankees had Derek Jeter.

These are the exceptions.

It is a sad trend that teams typically fail to keep their best players for their entire career.  The reasons for this are obvious:  economics.  Money.  Freedom of choice and movement.  We get that.

But it’s sad for the simple reason that fans want to wake up and know that the sun rises in the East, that their world is still much like it was when left alone the previous night, and yes – even that their sports heroes are still with the same team… much less that they aren’t now playing for a hated rival.

Yeah, that still bothers me about Tom Glavine.

The System Doesn’t Encourage Such Things

In the beginning, there was no freedom of player movement.  Curt Flood challenged this and ultimately won, though his “victory” reaped benefits for hundreds of others – not himself.

In those days, lots of players stayed with the same organization for their entire careers.  But that also had a negative impact on others while also limiting opportunities.

Currently, once a player reaches the major, a team is granted up to six years of ‘control’ over that player:  three years before the salary arbitration system kicks in and three years afterwards (simplified for this discussion).

After that comes free agency, where players almost universally now sell their skills to the highest bidder in an almost surreal auction-like market.

Some teams, like the Dodgers, can afford to throw money at their best players.  As such, Clayton Kershaw could indeed be a Dodger for life.  Ditto for Justin Verlander, though if the Tigers are to be believed, that might not ultimately happen.

In an extraordinary move that seems to have paid off for them, the Tampa Bay Rays rolled the dice in 2012 and awarded a ten year extension deal to Evan Longoria, in the hopes that he would be their superstar.

This was a huge risk for the Rays.  Obviously, he’s been great for them, but even so, there have been some noises about perhaps trading the 3-time All-Star now that he’s (finally) getting expensive to the club… and he’s approaching the 10-and-5 deadline (in 2018) for trade veto privileges.  Yes – another systemic barrier to discourage holding your own.

Thus for the majority of clubs, that opportunity to hold their best assets is extremely difficult.

What’s worse is that the problem seems to be exacerbated as players get better.

Sep 27, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) hits a two run single against the Chicago Cubs during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Cubs won 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Curse of Greatness

Take Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, for instance.  He played for Montreal, Seattle, Houston, Arizona, the Yankees, Arizona again, and finally the GIants.  He was a hired gun who was brought in to lead teams to the World Series.. and did manage to help win one.

There are several fan bases that like him a lot for his contributions to their team… but there isn’t any one that can truly call him ‘theirs’.

So today Andrew McCutchen is being shopped by the Pirates.  In his case, he was hoping to be a Pirate for life… at least, that’s what he said.

But Pittsburgh sees the handwriting on the wall.  They can’t afford to spend $20 million annually or more on a player – even one of Cutch’s obvious ability.  And to ask him to settle for $15 million or so in another contract extension seems to be somehow cheating him out of several million ‘earned’ dollars … if you want to compare him to others in the game

So the Pirates are in between a rock and a hard place:  they can’t afford a ‘market rate’ McCutchen, and because of that, it’s important to the organization to unload him for maximum possible trade value.

Such was the case – or will be – with Jonathan LucroyChris Sale (though less so on the money there).  Chris Archer, David Price, Jason Heyward, and countless others.

The Curse of the New CBA

It had been that many teams would at least hang on to their stars as long as possible, get the most benefit from them, and then cash in the draft pick compensation after losing them.

The Qualifying Offer concept has made that an interesting dance between free agents and clubs interested in their services, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement has tipped the scale.

Many teams will not be able to get full value for their departing free agents, so that will force them to consider dumping their stars onto the market early in order to maximize their returns.

Such is already happening (perhaps) with McCutchen.  The Nationals – should they fail in the playoffs again – may very well choose to do this with Bryce Harper after next season ends.

You get the picture.  Heck, with trade returns like the White Sox got with Sale and Eaton, it’s almost stupid not to consider dumping your best onto the market early.

How could this possibly be fixed?

I do like something similar to the way the NFL works:  the Franchise Tag.  Place that label on a player, and you can keep him… if you pay him appropriately, of course.

For baseball players, a second label might be needed for those around 35 years and older… a Legacy Tag, perhaps.  This could allow a lower average salary commensurate with expected performance drops… if indeed that happens.

That’s a very broad outline of an idea that could keep a player or two attached to their original teams for life… but whether the union or the owners would ever even consider such a proposal is something with sketchy odds, for sure.

But the fans would embrace that.

Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) and second baseman Jace Peterson (8) and shortstop Dansby Swanson (2) pose for a photo after a game against the Detroit Tigers at Turner Field. The Braves defeated the Tigers 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Home of the Braves

So now let’s look at our Atlanta Braves.  Do we truly expect any of the current crop to stick around for all of their playing days?

The John Trust (Schuerholz, Hart, and Coppolella) have collectively spoken of creating a “pipeline” of talent that would be continually filled with quality prospects that would be brought to the majors.

Unfortunately, pipes have two ends to them… one for inflow, the other for outflow.

Currently, the timing looks like this for certain members of this team:

That’s quite a bit of serious turnover that might be happening in the 2020-2022 time period.

Quotes are on record:  Freeman would like to be a Brave for life and Coppolella has gone out of his way to not trade him during the rebuild.  Those are words, but not actions.

The Braves are building a habit… a reputation, even… of keeping players for their best and most productive years and then letting them go… sometimes even sooner.  McCann, Heyward, etc.

Freeman will undoubtedly be one of those interesting choices to deal with when 2019 or 2020 comes around. Given his hitting and his position, he could be one that can maintain his production deep into his 30’s.  He would be a good candidate.

Meanwhile, could Swanson be the next one to get “the offer” – could he get one of those ‘Longoria-esque’ extensions?  As with the Rays and Longoria, the risks are large.

Money Overcomes Risk… if you have it

For mid-market teams – where Atlanta seems to be stuck financially – it’s hard to justify keeping even 2 of your best players for their entire careers.  Hopefully SunTrust Park and Battery Atlanta can help with that.

Most teams seem to be focusing on just one premium player at a time… and even that’s hard to do since it isn’t exclusively their choice in the matter.

That’s truly unfortunate for fans who really want to embrace ‘their guys’ for life.  Life is about change… though there’s a definite comfort level that comes with stability and consistency.  Such helps us root for the player and the team.  We want our stars to stay lit – shining brightly for a long time.

In the end, it comes down to the need for mutual agreements:  the team and a star player wanted to make it work together.

I think I know where the fans are on this.

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