According to a recent accounting, via my Googling fingers, Liberty Media Corporation has assets totaling $41 billion and the entire Liberty empire last year had a total market value of $80 billion, give or take a drachma. Their CEO, Gregory Maffei received $16.6 million in compensation in 2016, and their cute little baseball team, the Braves, who have uniforms and everything, are valued at $1.5 billion.
These are things I think about when the Braves choose to dump Jaime Garcia and Sean Rodriguez to save nickels in the name of “payroll flexibility.”
Now let me be clear: I have no problem with the Braves trading either player. They weren't going to make the playoffs . Garcia was a 31-year-old, late-rotation starter with a 4.30 ERA who was going to be a free agent. Rodriguez, a utility infielder, might have been a nice piece at the outset of the season, but got into a horrific car accident, and by the time he came back the Braves had a logjam of young infielders.
The Braves got almost nothing for either player. But they made certain all knew about the money they saved in the late-season dump: $4.7 million the rest of the season on Garcia; $1.75 million this year on Rodriguez and $5.75 million next year (although counting the 2018 salary in the name of economics now is a bit disingenuous because Rodriguez could’ve been moved in the winter, like any other veteran still under contract).
My biggest issue, or rather question, regarding the Braves moving forward is: What does all this mean in terms of their plans to spend money?
Like any corporation, Liberty Media, based in far-away Colorado, is bottom-line driven. They don’t follow wild-card races. They follow stock prices. The Journal-Constitution’s Tim Tucker reported in May that Liberty said approximately $653 million had been spent on SunTrust Park as of March 31. Of that, $378 million was secured by the Cobb County Board of Suckers and assorted fanboys. The other $275 million came from the Braves.
In addition, $354 million had been spent on the mixed-use area around the stadium. Once you get past all of the calculations, Liberty said the Braves were carrying a debt of $420 million as of March 31.
And you thought your mortgage was high.
Now you see why it’s so important to the Braves that all of those restaurants and businesses in The Battery thrive. And that they sell tickets. That debt must come down and, until it reaches a sane number, it’s fair to wonder how high the Braves will allow their payroll to go.
The Braves’ payroll to start this season ranked 19th overall. They now sit 24th overall at $113.7 million, which is below the league average of $150.8 million, according to Spotrac.com .
Splurging in free agency or taking on big contracts in trade don’t guarantee success. But there’s no question it increases a team’s chance to win. Of the top 10 payroll teams in baseball, five currently are sitting in playoff spots (Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Boston, Washington, Chicago Cubs) and at least one other is in the wild-card race (Baltimore). Another (Texas) just moved into sell mode.
Contrast: Of the bottom 10 payroll teams, only Arizona (which just made the cut at No. 21) may reach the postseason (second in the National League wild-card race).
Back to the Braves: They will enter this winter like they entered the last one – in need of starting pitching. The only certainty in the rotation next season is Mike Foltynewicz. The team needs to add at least two starters – preferably two who can slide into the rotation's top three.
Because how much pressure do you really want to put on young arms and young minds ?
It makes the most sense for the Braves to try to use Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis and Matt Adams as trade bait in hopes of getting a starter already under contract. But moving Kemp’s salary won’t be easy. (He turns 33 next month, and the Braves are responsible for $36 million of Kemp’s $43 million in 2018 and 2019). Maybe they'll move some prospects, which they've been resistant to. But they are certainly not going to trade their most valuable player, Freddie Freeman.
The Braves burned money attempting short-term fixes in the rotation with Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Garcia. The strategy of building a safe bridge to 2018 failed.
Watch ticket sales. Home attendance is up significantly this season as expected in the new park, with an average of 31,861 per game (from 24,950 in the final year at Turner Field). But if this season doesn’t sufficiently impact season-ticket sales and revenue streams, it likely will impact future roster plans.
Watch the money. That will tell the story of the next phase of the Braves’ makeover.
This from Maffei three weeks ago at an investor conference at SunTrust Park (via Tucker):
"We expect the Braves to continue to operate with the same financial discipline and prudence that they have historically, despite the upgraded new facilities. 2017 will begin to see the positive effects of The Battery's operations on the Braves' cash flows, and we expect them to increase annually with full impact in 2019. ... As we get more cash flows from The Battery and the new ballpark, we expect to deploy cash for normal business operations, potentially including paying down debt and investing in the team to enhance baseball operations."
I don't read that as plans to spend big -- certainly not any time soon.
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