The nice thing about having good young players is that they’re good, duh, and they’re cheap. But those young players get older and become less cheap. Arbitration is always messy. (Ask Jeff Francouer about that.) If a guy is set on testing his worth in free agency, there’s almost no way to placate him. (Ask Jason Heyward about that.) The latter wasn’t among the Wren re-ups because he wanted to see what was out there. The answer: $184 million from the Cubs.
Acuna and Albies are the leaders of the Braves’ youth movement, but it’s not a two-man class. What if Dansby Swanson’s early success holds? What if Mike Soroka stays healthy? What if Sean Newcomb makes the transition from decent starter to plus-performer? What of Mike Foltynewicz, an All-Star who can become a free agent after the 2021 season? Young players don’t stay young – or cheap – forever.
To suggest that the fuss over the apparent paucity of the Braves’ Albies outlay – a max of $45 million over nine years – was solely a function of outrage-fueled social media would be incorrect. The sabermetric community was unanimous in its incredulity, which makes sense. The aim of sabermetrics is to levy a value on everything; hence the advent of WAR and FIP and suchlike. There’s no denying that Albies signed for far under his projected value, but he’s a multimillionaire at age 22. Pre-extension, he was set to earn $575,000 this season.
Go back to those words – “projected value.” That’s not to be confused with performance, which is where real value lies. (Sorry if I’m sounding pedantic here.) There’s no guarantee that Albies will play to his expected level. (Again we reference Upton/Uggla.) More to the point, he can’t go to the bank and say, “See these numbers? Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS show I should be worth $100 million soon – could you advance me that now?”
The team offers a guaranteed future. (Even in today’s world, $35 million should set a guy up nicely.) The player trades possible earnings for cash money. The MLB Players Association hates it when that happens, but we can assume that Albies had MLBPA-approved representation when he signed. As much as we’d like to think that every club treats all its players as, ahem, family, the cold reality is that they’re employees. The Braves aren’t a non-profit. Locking down Acuna and Albies for dimes on the dollars they might – emphasis on “might” – have made is, as cruel as it might sound, good business.
The inevitable sentiment expressed in the backlash over Albies’ allegedly raw deal was that, having saved so much on their two young stars, the Braves must now go out and buy a free agent. This misses the point by as much as Uggla once missed breaking balls. The Braves are investing – and re-investing – in youth because they don’t want or feel a need to augment this team with pricey imports. They like what they have, and they want to keep it as long as possible.
No, that’s not as sexy as signing Bryce Harper for $320 million, but that’s the plan. And if you don’t like it ... well, would you care to see some cat snaps?