I understand the angst. The Atlanta Braves have done less this offseason than any other team in the National League East. That’s not an illusion. That’s a fact. Even the last-place Marlins made more moves, although their biggest involved dumping a good player. Their ballyhooed increased revenue notwithstanding, the Braves spent $29 million for one year of Josh Donaldson, Brian McCann and Nick Markakis — $301 million less than the Phillies paid for 13 years of Bryce Harper.
I understand that some fans — we stipulate that social media ensures that dissatisfaction always appears to hold sway, even if the protestors are in fact in the minority – are upset. I hear the plaints. The Braves don’t care about winning! They only care about money! A proud team like the Dodgers would never act like this! (Never mind that the Dodgers loved their patrons so much that they moved the club from one coast to the other and lately, due to a squabble over cable rights, have subjected many of those fans to what is essentially a five-year TV blackout.)
People care about the Braves. That’s a good thing. They expect certain things from the team. That’s not a bad thing. About here, let me gently suggest that the Braves — albeit under faceless ownership and mostly new management — have some grasp of their own history, which suggests that spending big on long-term contracts and building your roster in reaction to what somebody else just did are among the worst ways to conduct business.
Think of how the Braves got where they are. Their recent reset was a function of franchise patriarch John Schuerholz looking on what his chosen successor as general manager, had wrought and saying, “This cannot stand.” What Schuerholz saw was an organization hamstrung by the contracts afforded Melvin (nee B.J.) Upton and Dan Uggla, a batting order that could only yield a clout or a strikeout and a farm system all but devoid of young arms. Schuerholz didn’t care that the 2013 Braves had won 96 games and taken the N.L. East; by July 4, 2014, he’d decided to rip it up and start again. On Sept. 22, Frank Wren was fired.
With the blessing of John S., two other Johns (Hart and Coppolella) started selling off assets in the attempt to rebuild around young pitching. By opening day 2015, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel and Evan Gattis and both Uptons were gone. Coppolella would overreach – even Schuerholz hated the trade of Andrelton Simmons; MLB hated the Braves’ dealings in the international market so much it banned Coppolella for life – but he built baseball’s best farm system in double-quick time. Four years to the day after Wren’s termination, the Braves celebrated a division clinching.
The idea was for the Braves to become younger, cheaper and self-sustaining. To be fair, these were different from the marching orders handed the Hall of Famer Schuerholz, who very nearly bought the two greatest free agents ever — Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux — during the 1992 winter meetings in Louisville. The 21st Century Braves were no longer owned by the whimsical Ted Turner; there’s no whimsy in Liberty Media.
You mightn’t like that Atlanta’s baseball team is owned by a Colorado conglomerate. I don’t like it, either. The next person I meet from Liberty Media will be the first. That is, however, reality. LM will sell the Braves only when it’s good and ready, and now that the Braves are winning and making money and playing in a stadium Cobb County built for them, why would it? As constituted, the Braves will never outspend the Dodgers or the Yankees or even the Phillies. And the Braves’ awful local TV contract — signed in 2007, it runs through 2027 – doesn’t help.
If you’re Alex Anthopoulos, there’s your baseline. To be clear, he replaced Coppolella with eyes wide open; indeed, Anthopoulos has been GM of both big league clubs under corporate ownership. (The Blue Jays are the property of Toronto’s Rogers Media.) When he said last July that he “can shop at any aisle,” I don’t think he was fibbing, and I’m the guy who asked the question. But there’s a difference between shopping and buying, just as there’s a difference between wants and needs.
If you’re a Braves’ fan in March 2019, maybe you’re ticked that the Phillies landed Harper and Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto , or that the Mets added Robinson Cano and Wilson Ramos and Edwin Diaz, or that – this is quite the lengthy roll call – the Nationals imported Patrick Corbin, Yan Gomes, Anibal Sanchez and Kurt Suzuki, the latter two who were Braves last season. Again, I feel your pain. But my clinical advice is to take two aspirin and take two steps back and note the following:
The Braves are a 90-win team coming off a division title and — AND — the owners of baseball’s second-best farm system, as judged by MLB Pipeline. Even with Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies ensconced in the majors, the Braves have slipped only one spot. This, I submit, is exactly where Schuerholz wanted this club to be when he moved against Wren, exactly what Coppolella meant when he said his dream was of “wave upon wave” of prospects. This is the way, and maybe the only way, a team owned by Liberty Media can hope to get and stay good.
We already know how much the next 13 years of Harper are costing. If you had absolute carte blanche, how much would you pay to buy Acuna? Well, the next five of his years belong to the Braves. (Say this for Wren: It was under his aegis that the Braves signed Acuna, Albies and Johan Camargo.)
The Phillies, Mets and Nats had to make big moves. The best of them finished last season 82-80, and that team just saw Harper sign with its nearest NL neighbor. The Braves won the East by eight games in what was ticketed to be Year 4 of a Great Rebuild. The season ahead, we remind you, was supposed to be the time when the winning began again.
If Anthopoulos wanted to buy Dallas Keuchel tomorrow, I’m pretty sure he could. (The Braves have had five pitchers – Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Luiz Gohara, Kevin Gausman and Max Fried – miss time this spring with shoulder/elbow/finger ailments.) But should Anthopoulos buy Keuchel, who’s 31 and who has one of the lowest strikeout rates among starting pitchers?
The Braves found Sanchez off the scrap heap last spring and got 24 mostly excellent starts for roughly $600,000. ESPN reported that Keuchel was seeking “six or seven years at $25-30 million annually.” Even if we use MLB Trade Rumors’ more reasonable projection of four years at $82 million, that’s still a lot for someone who isn’t a No. 1 starter — he did win the 2015 AL Cy Young – or even a No. 2.
What’s impressive, at least to me, is Anthopoulos’ refusal to do anything in haste. That might be driving his constituency nuts, but it’s not a bad operating principle. Panic moves are just that. The worst trade in Braves annals — Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby for Len Barker — came because Whimsical Ted was desperate to fend off the Dodgers in 1983 and L.A. had just landed Rick Honeycutt. Ted’s team still finished second; in three seasons here, Barker won 10 games.
I’m not averse to a team spending money. I’m averse to a team spending money and not realizing value. I’m averse to compromising what seems a shimmering future just because everybody else in the neighborhood bought a shiny new car. The sports administrators’ cliché is also the truth: You can’t manage anybody else’s team; you can only manage yours. The best way to manage the Braves is to do as Schuerholz wanted — build the farm, trust the farm and add pieces as/when needed.
Maybe Anthopoulos will decide he needs a big-name starter. Maybe he’ll wait and see what happens in April and May, which wouldn’t be totally silly. (Well, would it?) Maybe this will be the year the Braves play well and finish second, in which case there’s always next year, and with a team so young that’s no empty promise. I’ve said it before, but it’s clear Anthopoulos is playing a long game, and with the talent under contract that’s also the best game.
I don’t like everything the Braves have done this winter — I’m not a big Markakis fan — but I find no fault with their measured approach. Just because you have a little money doesn’t mean you have to spend it. Money will keep, and time, we say again, is on the Braves’ side.
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