The Atlanta Braves play in the ninth-largest US media market, but they don’t spend like it. The team is owned by the publicly traded Liberty Media Corporation, and last year’s Opening Day payroll of roughly $90 million ranked in the middle of the major leagues.
The Braves face the sort of choices their division rivals in Philadelphia and Washington do not. The Phillies retained their homegrown core of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins through their prime years. At this very moment, the Phillies have three players – Howard, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee — on contracts of $100 million or more each. The Braves hadn’t given out a $100 million contract in the whole of their franchise history.
That was, until Tuesday.
The team announced an eight-year contract extension for first baseman Freddie Freeman, valued at $135 million, hours after reaching a two-year, $13.3 million deal with right fielder Jason Heyward. You could have described this as the Braves committing multiyear contracts to a pair of 24-year-old stars who already have earned their first All-Star selections. But the chasm of more than $120 million tells you what this really was: a choice between the two.
The Braves probably can’t afford Freeman and Heyward for the long term, unless Liberty Media authorizes a higher payroll. That’s unlikely, at a time when the Braves are operating with an unfavorable media-rights deal and must contribute $280 million toward their new ballpark in Cobb County. And so the Braves are betting on Freeman, who has been healthier and more productive than Heyward over the past three seasons.
It’s difficult to find fault with the choice, what with Freeman’s MVP-caliber season in 2013. But we must acknowledge something else: The Braves had better be right. They had B.J. Upton ($75.25 million) and Dan Uggla ($62 million) sitting on the bench last October after profoundly frustrating regular seasons. The franchise simply cannot afford a similar big-dollar disappointment with Freeman.
The Braves’ fortunes are tied to Freeman now, in one of the sport’s tightest franchise-player relationships. Chipper Jones retired. Brian McCann is a Yankee. Craig Kimbrel is in the midst of a high-stakes arbitration case with the team and might price himself out of Atlanta by this time next year. Heyward will become a free agent when his deal expires after the 2015 season. This is Freeman’s team.
Braves fans surely wanted more offseason sizzle than the front office delivered, after falling six outs shy of a decisive Game 5 — at Turner Field — against the star-studded Dodgers in the National League Division Series. But the franchise-record extension for Freeman will have to do.
The upside of the Braves’ inactivity? By retaining his prospects, general manager Frank Wren has the wherewithal to pursue David Price and Jeff Samardzija on the trade market this July. Whether the Braves are playing well enough to justify a major move will depend largely on their newly minted $135 million man.