Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies extensions cement Atlanta’s long-term foundation
The Atlanta Braves rattled off consecutive wins against the New York Mets, including a convincing performance against reigning Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, to end their 0-5 start against divisional challengers in 2019.
With 15 games in the books, Atlanta is tied for second place in the National League East and sitting just behind the Philadelphia Phillies for first place. Still, nothing dominated Atlanta baseball — and what it will look like for the next decade — quite like the Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies extensions.
Atlanta’s long-term foundation is ultra-young, ultra-affordable and ultra-talented
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies are going to be playing together in Atlanta for a decade.
The under-23 stars shook the baseball industry over the past two weeks with extensions that both provide financial security to the players and their families and hand an incredible amount of, yes, financial flexibility to the Braves’ front office for the next decade. Albies and Acuña signed for rates far below their free-market value — to claim otherwise would be foolish — and the two deals will likely be a source of contention for years as the new collective bargaining agreement creeps closer. From an Atlanta-centric perspective, though, the two players appear satisfied with their decisions as the focus now turns to how the organization wields that extra room on the payroll.
The franchise will pay $4 million per season for both players over the next three years. Repeat: $4 million combined average annual value through 2021 for two players who will likely hit at the top of the order, provide plus defense and base-running and be the marketable dynamic duo of a prospective contender.
From 2022 to 2027, assuming club options are exercised, Albies and Acuña will make a combined salary equal to the one the Braves paid Adrian Gonzalez to not play for them in 2018 dollars. Atlanta could then pick up yet another $17 million club option for Acuña's 2028 campaign.
If both players produce anywhere near their 7.7 combined fWAR last season, this resets the gold standard front offices around the league will try to replicate for years. As Dan Szymborski wrote for FanGraphs after the Albies extension: "ZiPS projects Albies with the fourth-most WAR remaining in his career, behind only Mike Trout, Juan Soto and Francisco Lindor. If you’re wondering where Ronald Acuña is, he’s all the way down at ... fifth."
Surplus value is practically guaranteed to eclipse the $100 million plateau. It’s likely closer to half a billion.
Since 2000, no team has locked up two star position players who debuted this young to this many years of club control without committing any money past their respective age-30 seasons. This is unprecedented value in modern baseball. While it is too soon to tell what the final financial tally — either in terms of arbitration or extension dollars that have yet to materialize for one or both players — will be for other young standout duos around the sport like Francisco Lindor-Jose Ramirez, Mookie Betts-Xander Bogaerts, Corey Seager-Cody Bellinger, Carlos Correa-Alex Bregman or Javy Baez-Kris Bryant, Atlanta knows exactly what the commitment will be for its two most promising position players.
Finding similar situations in recent history is difficult, if not impossible. Here is a compilation of star duos (a subjective term, granted) who debuted at 22 years old or younger for the same franchise around the same time with one or both position players signing an extension since 2000.
Joe Mauer-Justin Morneau, Twins
Commitment through age-30 seasons: $186M
Commitment after age-30 seasons: $115M
Production through age-30 seasons: 65.1 bWAR
Background: The Twins signed superstar catcher Joe Mauer to two extensions (2007, 2010) during his outstanding career in Minnesota, the second of which remains the most lucrative extension ever given to a catcher, while Morneau signed a six-year, $80 million deal in 2008. The two combined to win two MVP awards and Mauer spent an entire Cooperstown-quality career in Minneapolis. The small-market Twins never made it past the ALDS but, save for a couple seasons toward the end, the contracts never truly went sideways.
David Wright-Jose Reyes, Mets
Commitment through age-30 seasons: $101M
Commitment after age-30 seasons: $0M*
Production through age-30 seasons: 76.6 bWAR
Background: The David Wright financial situation makes this a difficult case. While the Mets did not technically guarantee any money past his age-30 season with his first extension in 2006, he signed his second extension less than a month before his 30th birthday. The Mets paid the star third baseman another nine digits over the subsequent eight seasons before health issues unfortunately intervened, leaving a complicated web of deferrals and interest remaining. Reyes signed a far less lucrative extension, eventually becoming a free agent after the 2011 season, but its easy to forget how good the left side of New York’s infield was for a time.
Christian Yelich-Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
Commitment through age-30 seasons: $165M
Commitment after age-30 seasons: $218M
Production through age-30 seasons: 64.8 bWAR
Background: The Marlins outfielders provide a lesson in trade value. Miami traded their two stars prior to last season for very different packages due to the team-friendly nature of Yelich’s deal — netting them a decent return from the Brewers — and Stanton’s monster deal, an extension topped in value only by Mike Trout’s. Still, even though Miami will never see the full return on their franchise's initial investment, the lives of the contracts themselves have already seen two MVP awards and could end up with the highest on-field production on this list, especially with the way the 27-year-old Yelich has played for the Brewers.
Background: The Atlanta Braves committed long-term to one of their two young stars (Freeman) and bought out the arbitration years before eventually trading the other (Heyward), a deal that set off a ripple effect eventually leading to the Shelby Miller blockbuster. Freeman blossomed into one of the game’s most consistent superstars after signing the most lucrative contract in franchise history. Heyward eventually signed his own mega-deal with the Chicago Cubs, but the combination of the financial commitment, the money tied up past age-30 campaigns and production might make this the closest comparable situation to Atlanta’s latest extension spree — assuming a comparison even exists.
Ozzie Albies-Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves
Commitment through age-30 seasons: $135M
Commitment after age-30 seasons: $0M
Production through age-30 seasons: 11.1 bWAR
Background: The bargain of all bargains until proven otherwise. Factoring in four club options (not included in the commitments above outside of buyouts), Atlanta claims club control over two of the game’s brightest young stars for 21 combined seasons at $170 million. That’s within range of the eight-year deal Chris Davis signed in 2016.
The remaining question will be how Atlanta’s front office surrounds its youthful foundation for the next decade and if, at some point, the combination adds up to the organization’s second World Series title.
Brian Snitker needs to construct Atlanta’s lineup as if he’s already in a closely contested division race
The start of the Atlanta Braves’ offseason feels like a distant memory, but months ago general manager Alex Anthopoulos signed Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million contract in baseball and followed it up by saying the Braves should wedge the former American League MVP between Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman at the top of the lineup.
“My opinion: Getting your best hitters the most at-bats makes the most sense,” Anthopoulos said during a pre-Winter Meetings media session. “Now if we end up with starting off a game with Acuña, Donaldson, Freddie Freeman, the guy on the other side’s not feeling good. You look at momentum, the team that scores first and all that. It’s pretty good.”
By January, the tune changed.
On the night Atlanta re-signed Nick Markakis, Anthopoulos revealed over a conference call that manager Brian Snitker was leaning toward putting Ender Inciarte back at leadoff. Though Atlanta’s GM made clear throughout the offseason that his manager makes the final call on the lineup, it was a notable reversal for a contender who won the 2018 NL East title behind data-driven alterations from defensive positioning to pitch usage.
The Braves staff eventually conceded before the season began that 22-year-old star Ozzie Albies would be hitting leadoff against left-handed starters, but 72 percent of plate appearances league-wide came against righties the previous year. Ender Inciarte was the Opening Day leadoff hitter and the primary leadoff hitter to open the season. For a dynamic young offense with a variety of options, it was a managerial misstep.
Snitker’s default mode of writing Inciarte’s name at the top of the order is largely attributed to gut feeling. As he said last season: “I just kind of feel that with him up there doing what he's capable of, that's our best (lineup).” A career spanning more than seven hundred games and 3,000 plate appearances provides a long list of counterarguments to this intuitive approach — and tabbing a career .724 OPS player for a vital lineup role only draws attention away from Inciarte’s real strengths, distracting from the fact that Atlanta’s center fielder has molded himself into a very good major-league player with three consecutive Gold Gloves at a premium position. He’s been a borderline top-10 center fielder since joining Atlanta in 2016. But the hitting information, especially for a traditional slow starter with much better second-half numbers, was there for the taking.
Inciarte went hitless in five of his first nine leadoff appearances of the season, driving his on-base percentage down to .284 over his past 300 plate appearances at the top. Since the start of the 2018 season, he's hitting 47 percent below league average at leadoff, the lowest rate in baseball among qualified hitters. And yet for the first two weeks of a division race where every game will likely count when September rolls around, Snitker elected to give his quietest bat the most opportunities against right-handed starters, undercutting the preseason mantra of transitioning Acuña to a run-producing role.
Following Saturday’s night win over the New York Mets, as Ozzie Albies pushed his OBP close to the .400 mark thanks to a much-improved swing from the left side, Snitker conceded that he likes his All-Star second baseman batting first. He followed that up by starting Albies against right-hander and reigning Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom on Sunday. However, even with the organization wanting regular-season proof that Albies' swing adjustments were real after a promising spring training, other options were available.
“I really like where he’s at with his total game, because when he is up there, he’s an exciting player and he can make things happen,” Snitker said of Albies after Sunday's win. “That can really fill a nice spot for us.”
To Snitker's credit, the coaching staff prioritized the top of the order against left-handers from the beginning — only one team has produced better in more plate appearances against left-handers — and change against right-handers arrived much faster in 2019, a decision reflecting both Albies' development and the Braves’ tougher road to the playoffs and their own 2-5 record against the Phillies and Mets.
Rumors of Ronald Acuña Jr.’s slow start were greatly exaggerated
Early April is baseball’s statistical silly season.
Glancing at the leaderboards exiting the weekend, light-hitting White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson is one of the best hitters in the universe, Cleveland star Jose Ramirez is the fourth-least productive batter in the majors and Matthew Boyd and Luis Castillo are Cy Young frontrunners. Fast starts can be indicative of future success due to swing adjustments or pitch usage, but many oddities can be attributed to annual Small Sample Size Theater.
In this light, the discussion surrounding Ronald Acuña Jr.’s so-called slow start was overblown from the start. The proverbial sophomore slump narrative sparked far too early — even as the 21-year-old superstar made elite contact and put together patient at-bats. Here are the outfielder’s five-game splits in terms of weighted runs created plus (100 is league average):
First 5 games: 98
First 10 games: 110
First 14 games: 174
What was the problem again?
There were early trends to keep an eye on — he was just missing on fastballs in the early going — but any “Ronald Acuña Jr. Is Struggling” theme was quickly dismissed by a trademark streak from a player who is already one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball.
Josh Donaldson is following a similar path as his numbers are catching up to his top-tier exit velocity and hard-hit percentages, homering in consecutive games this weekend to push his OPS up to .872 in his first 15 games in an Atlanta uniform.