On the same day the Braves re-signed Nick Markakis to a bargain deal, a move that isn’t likely to improve their outfield, experts confirmed they still have several of the top prospects in baseball. Those pieces of news showed the parallel tracks that Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos must navigate.
On the one hand, he’s building a roster for a major league team that is owned by a corporation whose chairman famously called the Braves a “fairly major real estate business as opposed to just a baseball club.” On the other hand, Anthopoulos has a talent-rich farm system filled with players who aren’t ripe for the majors but who could be used as assets in trades.
If Anthopoulos is reluctant to cede those prospects, I get it. He’s got to keep the long-term plan in mind. Trades and free-agent signings come with risks. As the GM for a team that doesn’t spend big, Anthopoulos has insurance in the form of prospects who will earn relatively modest salaries once they reach the majors.
If Liberty Media is reluctant to spend big money on payroll I get that, too, from its perspective.
The company’s revenues and profits exploded in the first year two years of SunTrust Park. The Braves won the NL East in 2018 with a payroll that ranked 17th of 30 teams at the end of the season. The Braves’ current estimated payroll of $110 million still ranks 17th.
As I said, I get why Liberty Media would stick to the spending status quo with the belief that it will continue to rake in the money. But that’s the business perspective. There could come a time when the team’s fans take a jaded view of the tight corporate fist around the player payroll.
Fans see the owner’s profits accelerate as team payroll remains stagnant. They see other NL East teams spend to get better while the Braves don’t add money. They hear Anthopoulos cite the outfield as a top offseason priority and then watch him sign the same right fielder, a 35-year-old with one above-average season out of four with the team.
Surely, many Braves backers understand that help is on the way one day with the prospects. They may know Anthopoulos is doing a fine job building the team given his payroll limitations. Some of them may even get that it can be stupid to spend on big free agents.
But thanks to Liberty Media’s publicly-available financial figures, those fans also know that the owner isn’t investing its taxpayer-subsidized profits in player payroll. They must wonder if that will ever happen, even if it’s the smart baseball thing to do.
The Braves’ player payroll now is about the same as it was this time last year. It’s roughly the same as it was in 2014, before the Braves started stripping payroll and acquiring prospects. A cynic — OK, me — might say Liberty Media tanked those final two seasons at Turner Field in anticipation of a windfall that would come at SunTrust no matter the quality of the team.
And that’s what happened. Braves revenue soared by 47 percent in 2017 despite fielding a losing team. Liberty Media hasn’t yet released its final 2018 figures, but its third-quarter operating profit in 2018 was $24 million more than it was in the third quarter of 2017.
The owner attributed the revenue growth to more operations at the Battery Atlanta development and “increased ticket prices, higher attendance and increased concessions per turnstile.” They built it, the fans came but the profits aren’t going to the payroll.
This wasn’t what Liberty Media said would happen. Back in 2014 Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk said the coming ballpark meant that “as far out into the future as I can see, I see us raising payroll every year.”
That was soon after the Braves had signed four players to contract extensions. By the start of the 2015 season they had traded two of them, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel, as part of the aforementioned roster strip down.
The Braves got their anticipated revenue surge. Fans did not get their promised increase in payroll. Last summer Braves executives told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the team was more focused on paying down debt for construction loans.
The disconnect between profits and payroll was on the back burner with the shiny new ballpark in 2017 and the team’s surprising success in 2018. A disappointing Braves season in 2019 might bring it to the forefront.
I’m not advocating for the Braves to spend more. It doesn’t matter to me because I don’t have a rooting interest in the team. But I wouldn’t blame fans if they soured on the Braves with a down season because, after all, they are cheering for the baseball team and not the real estate.
The Braves could compete for another division title in 2019. Josh Donaldson, the team’s one big-ticket free agent, could return to pre-injury form. Young players Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo could be even better. The Braves could find enough reliable arms from among their young pitchers.
All of that is plausible. If it happens, the Braves won’t have to make any major moves and the flat payroll will remain background noise.
But it’s also possible the Braves will regress as a team. Or they could be on the cusp of contention but need some veteran help. Then the payroll would be part of the continuing narrative about a corporate owner that cares more about the real estate than the baseball team.
At that point Anthopoulos would have to decide whether to surrender some of those prospects. Liberty Media would have to decide if it’s willing to take on more payroll to improve the roster.
The GM’s track record suggests he’ll do the smart thing if that time comes. The owner’s track record suggests it will do the cheap thing.
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