On Betts, the Braves and, er, financial flexibility

You’ll probably hate what I’m about to say. (So now you’re asking, “And how would that differentiate this missive from everything else you’ve ever written?” To which I respond, “Hardy har har.”) It is, I concede the sports equivalent of being told to eat your spinach. Sometimes, though, we need to eat spinach.

Some folks wonder why the Braves didn't just give Josh Donaldson what he wanted, which was the four years at $92 million – that's at minimum; maximum would be $100 mil – he got from Minnesota. A little while back, these fingers typed a sentence suggesting the Braves pay the going rate, the future be hanged. This is, I suggest, the reason the owner of these fanciful fingers has never been charged with running a baseball team.

In big-money sports, the future can never be hanged. The bills always, always come due. (Last month Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos equated massive multi-year deals with "using your credit card.") Could the Braves have afforded Donaldson at $21 million – the per-year price Minnesota is paying – for this season and the next? Given that they paid $23 million in 2019 and that they spent $18 million for Marcell Ozuna as a stopgap replacement, sure. But a GM cannot look only at the front end of a deal. The back end is when the hammer falls.

Donaldson is 34. He was, going by Baseball-Reference WAR, the 12th-best position player in MLB last season. He could be among the top 20 again this year. He mightn’t be among the top 50 in 2021, at which point his contract would have two years to run. There’s a reason the deal he just signed marked the second-biggest for a player coming off an age-33 season. The reason is that players of that age aren’t apt to keep playing that way much longer.

We can't say the Braves didn't spend this offseason. Their opening-day payroll figures to be $150 million, up from the $114 million of opening day in 2019. According to SportTrac, that makes their roster MLB's 11th-most expensive. That doesn't bring them within hailing distance of the Yankees ($243M) or the Dodgers ($215M) or the Astros ($206M, not counting the cost of replacing one banged-up trash can), but the Braves are owned by Liberty Media. As such, they'll never outspend the rest of the field. Silver lining: They'll also never have to worry about the luxury tax.

Scoff all you like, but the luxury tax – the threshold this season is $208 million – has become a concern even to organizations capable of living in luxury. The Red Sox led the majors in payroll the past two seasons, and they just traded Mookie Betts, the best everyday player after Mike Trout, to the Dodgers because their owners – John Henry and Tom Werner, who also own Liverpool, the world’s best soccer team – felt a need to pare back. “We need to be under the (threshold),” Henry said last fall. Then, speaking of being competitive: “The solution to that isn’t always having the highest payroll every year.”

The Red Sox spent most of the 20th century not winning the World Series; they’ve won it four times since 2003. (The Yankees and Cubs have won it once each over that span; the Dodgers haven’t won since 1988.) Sometimes throwing money at a problem works. Long-term money sticks, and eventually it gums up the works. David Price signed with Boston in December 2015 for $217 million over seven seasons. His efforts in October 2018 were a key reason the Red Sox became champs; apart from that, he has been only OK. His bWAR over the past four years is 10.8; Mike Minor – yes, Mike Minor – had a bWAR of 7.8 in 2019 alone.

Price, who’s 34, is still owed $96 million over the next three seasons. Per reports, the Red Sox will pay half of that even though he’ll be pitching for the Dodgers. He was a ride-along in the Betts deal, which has been widely decried as a give-up move. But was it? Boston finished 84-78 last season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Betts is scheduled to make $27 million and will become a free agent at season’s end. (Meaning: There’s no guarantee he’ll stay a Dodger.) Having declined an extension of $300 million over 10 years, he’s said to be eyeing a contract of $400 million.

Under the since-jettisoned Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox spent big to win big, but saw their farm system wither. We around here have talked much about farm systems the past six years, and we stand as witness to their power. The flowering of talents such as Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka is why this club got good and is poised to stay good. Thing is, young talents get expensive, too.

Anthopoulos moved last spring to secure Acuna/Albies for an aggregate 15 years at an unbelievably cheap $135 million. If the two continue at the rate they’re going, those deals could need tweaking. Still, they set a baseline of cost control. Only a baseline, though. Freddie Freeman’s contract expires after the 2021 season. Soroka and Max Fried will become arbitration-eligible that same offseason, and the Braves surely would prefer to do something long-term with one/both before then. Mike Foltynewicz and Dansby Swanson already are arbitration-eligible.

Back to Donaldson. Putting $21 million on the books for 2020 and 2021 might have done no great harm, but $21 million in 2022 for a 36-year-old third baseman would have put a dent in the ledger. The Cubs wouldn’t be considering trading Kris Bryant, who’s 28 and under contract through 2021, if they hadn’t paid retail for their starting pitching. (Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks – all on the high side of 30 – are owed $175.5 million.)

The Braves hope Ian Anderson/Kyle Wright/Kyle Muller and Cristian Pache/Drew Waters and Shea Langeliers – all among Baseball Prospectus' top 101 prospects, FYI – will remove the need for short-term deals for the likes of Cole Hamels and Ozuna and Travis d'Arnaud. Short-term deals rarely hurt, though. "Financial flexibility" has become a gag line for Braves fans, but it's no joke. The Red Sox wouldn't have traded Betts if they had payroll wiggle room. But they didn't, so they did.

In a perfect world, the Braves would have kept Donaldson. Having to balance both the real world and the reality of Liberty Media, Anthopoulos thought hard and said no. It wasn't a popular choice. Big-picture-wise, it was the proper one.