LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Defense pays the bills, too.
The Atlanta Braves added yet another long-term contract extension to its ledger on Thursday afternoon, as they announced the signing of shortstop and defensive stalwart Andrelton Simmons to a seven-year deal worth $58 million. The deal buys up Simmons’ five arbitration years and two free-agent seasons.
In terms of average annual value, the deal’s $8.29 million makes the Curacao native the 15th-highest paid shortstop in baseball.
"As one of the premier shortstops in the game — and quite frankly we believe the premier shortstop in the game — we’re thrilled to have him signed through all of his arbitration years and two free-agent years," general manager Frank Wren said. "It continues with the theme of keeping our core together for a long time. And we think he’s an integral part of that."
Wren and the organization have certainly not shied away from that theme, handing out more than $269 million guaranteed in long-term extensions over the past few weeks to four separate players: Simmons, first baseman Freddie Freeman ($135 million), closer Craig Kimbrel ($44 million) and starting pitcher Julio Teheran ($32.5 million).
If incentives are hit and one-year options exercised on Teheran and Kimbrel, the total value edges even closer to the $300-million mark. The club also bought out outfielder Jason Heyward’s two remaining arbitration years for $13 million and signed Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez to contract extensions.
The future is coming sharply into focus. Simmons was always going to be a part of it.
"I think generally you’re looking at all these guys we’ve signed, they’re young at their position, they’re young at being high-caliber players in the major leagues," Wren said. "So even a seven-year deal, (Simmons is) going to come out of that deal at 30 years of age. And so that was one of our criteria. The other was just being a top performer at the major-league level, which he clearly is. I mean, winning the Platinum Glove (given to the preeminent defensive player at any position in each league) this past year for his outstanding defense and we think he’s just going to keep getting better offensively.
"For us, it was somewhat of a no-brainer that he would be part of a young corps that we tied up."
The organization began formulating its long-term plans in the fall, and set a general financial guideline to its negotiations the first week of January. Wren and his staff began reaching out to the players’ agents around the arbitration salary swap date last month. Wren said the team’s rough model for locking up the talented group — though there have been economic shifts in baseball’s landscape since — was the 1990s Cleveland club, a franchise then run by general manager John Hart, who now serves as a Braves front office senior adviser.
The Braves obviously believe the talent they’ve brought up through the farm system warrants similar treatment. They may be on to something, too.
Earlier this week, longtime baseball writer Jayson Stark crystallized the uniqueness of Atlanta’s 2013 season, revealing the Braves were the only club since the 1987 Cincinnati Reds to post a winning record with three everyday position players ages 23 or under (400-plus plate appearances). The dynamic trio included Freeman (.319, 23 homers, 109 RBI), Heyward (67 runs, .349 on-base percentage in 104 games) and Simmons (17 homers), with each player performing well in their age 23-campaigns.
Digging deeper, Stark also notes the 2013 Braves were the winningest club with three 23-or-under position players since the 1975 Boston Red Sox (95-65 record, lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series) — led by outfielders Dwight Evans, Fred Lynn and 2009 Hall of Famer Jim Rice. That’s not terrible company to be in. Wren acknowledged the comparison, saying of the corps he, along with former GM John Schuerholz, has helped to put together, "You look around and you don’t see — it’s historic."
Added Gonzalez on long-term extensions: "You don’t know. You don’t know with injuries and stuff like that. But you lock up a corps of young players that you know are going to be here, it’s always a good thing."
Simmons made some sabermetric history with his glove last season — racking up 41 defensive runs saved, the highest mark of any player since tracking of the stat began in 2003 — and finished as one of the most valuable players at the shortstop position in baseball, according to Baseball Reference.
FanGraphs put Simmons’ wins above replacement behind only Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki and Washington’s Ian Desmond. In that sense, his contract appears to be a bargain at less than $9 million annually, considering Tulowitzki, Toronto’s Jose Reyes and former Braves prospect Elvis Andrus (Rangers) each pull in $15 million or more on a yearly basis.
Simmons is on track to be, in terms of all-around value, on par with those names — and the Braves now have him through his age-30 season.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” the Gold Glove shortstop said. “I know I’m happy, though."
The biggest question remaining for Simmons and his future prospects is at the plate, where he’s shown both promise and power but has yet to put things together over the course of his first two seasons. He’s hit .256/.304/.400 with 20 home runs and a 90 OPS+ in 840 career plate appearances. Those numbers will need to improve over the next seven seasons.
But there are signs pointing to improvement: he never strikes out, almost always making contact when he swings, and his 17 home runs in 2013 point to an increase in power — a valuable and uncommon trait in shortstops.
"When you get a chance to sign probably your best defender, especially a guy that plays in the middle of the diamond, to that type of long-term deal — I really don’t know the terms of it — it’s an easy one, really," Gonzalez said. "He’s a guy that makes a difference offensively and, we know, defensively also. … He’s a winner. He cares about winning and losing games, I’ll tell you that much."
Wren said that it took an organizational commitment to put this much money on the table over 25 total seasons, and that the contracts have come right around the expected marks for each player.
"We didn’t go into it trying to ‘win the deal,’ per say," Wren said. "We went into trying to sign players. When you go into it with that approach you’re going to be more successful.
"So we feel like we’ve made good deals, but we didn’t exactly ‘win the deal’ in every case. … We had levels that if any of these deals had reached those levels, we wouldn’t have done them. But fortunately I think we’re in a situation where these guys wanted to be here as long as we wanted them to be here."
Simmons isn’t the end, either. Wren made that very clear.