Braves closer Craig Kimbrel sets the Cleveland Indians down in order to close out the 9th inning in 2013 in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC/Atlanta Journal Constitution
Photo: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC/Atlanta Journal Constitution

Can’t blame Braves fans for frustration over empty payroll promises 

Free-agent relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel agreed to sign with the Cubs for three years and $43 million. That irked Braves backers who wanted the team to sign the best guy available to fill the team’s biggest need. That it was Kimbrel, who became a star with the Braves, just added to their angst.

The Braves also need help for their starting rotation. Late Thursday they reportedly agreed to a deal with free agent Dallas Keuchel through the end of the season. Keuchel will help ]the Braves. We’ll see if it’s enough to enough to significantly change their fortunes.

The Braves can say Kimbrel isn’t worth the money he got from the Cubs. The Braves can point to a competitive team that began Thursday 1-1/2 games behind the Phillies in the National League East. They can cite their plentiful pitching prospects and pledge to make more moves by next month’s trade deadline. 

Maybe the Braves will end up doing a deal that adds significant money to their payroll. Keuchel’s reported $13 million deal brings their payroll to roughly the same level as the end of 2018. At this point, though, why would Braves fans believe the team will take on more money? The Braves have earned their reputation as insincere cheapskates. 

For years they’ve pledged to put a bigger chunk of their profits into player payroll. They started talking about it while playing at Turner Field and looking forward to increased revenue at their next ballpark. They made the same promises after moving to SunTrust Park and seeing revenue and profits skyrocket to levels that even Liberty Media didn’t anticipate. 

But the team’s player payroll was lower in the second year at the new ballpark. It was down again at the start of this season. Now comes word from The AJC’s Tim Tucker that the Braves have been making more money than everyone thought on the television deal that’s been cited as an excuse for why they don’t spend more on player payroll.

A reasonable person can look at these factors and conclude that Braves aren’t serious about spending more money on player talent to improve their ballclub. I get it: Liberty Media has no incentive to do so if profits keep flowing. The public is free to take its product or leave it, though Cobb County taxpayers are on the hook whether they like it or not. 

I don’t blame LM for minimizing its costs. (I fault feckless politicians for socializing LM’s risks.) But I’m not investing time and money to root for the home team. I won’t sit in my ivory press box and tsk tsk Braves supporters who believe they’ve been flimflammed. 

That would be faulting people for believing what the Braves say about spending. It would be giving the Braves a pass for stringing them along. It would be accepting the cynical messaging strategy of a wildly profitable business, one subsidized by public money, while snickering at fans who took its public statements at face value. 

The Braves haven’t even been deft with their sleight of hand. There are plenty of receipts. 

Braves CEO Terry McGuirk in 2014, after the Braves signed core young players signed to extensions and anticipated much bigger revenues at their new stadium: “Really, as far out into the future as I can see, I see us raising payroll every year.” 

McGuirk before the 2018 season, following a $124 million revenue increase the year before: “There will be very few teams that have as much to spend in the marketplace next winter as the Atlanta Braves.” 

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos before last year’s trade deadline: “I’ve been given very specific instructions, and I can shop in any aisle.” 

Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei after the Braves reported 2018 revenue that was 69 percent higher than during the team’s final season at the old park: “We want our team to win the World Series and believe our team has the potential to and is on the right path to do so. The management team has our full backing to do what they believe is right to win.” 

My guess it that fewer people will buy that spin if the Braves don’t do more than add Keuchel. The Braves will have a lot of money coming off the books after this season, but the same thing happened last winter and they put less than that amount back into the roster. So far, the only expensive items Anthopoulos has put in his basket are Josh Donaldson for one season at $23 million and Keuchel for about 3 ½months for $13 million.

Anthopoulos shouldn’t be blamed for that. He doesn’t set his own budget. However, it is fair to knock Anthopoulos for pushing the company line about financial “flexibility” to the point that it’s become an end in itself. 

And the Braves do have that flexibility. It’s not just their soaring profits. 

The Braves recently signed their two best young players, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies, to long-term extensions at bargain prices. Both players have relatively modest salaries until 2022. But it appears the Braves will treat that as money saved rather than money freed to improve the ballclub by acquiring players with expensive, long-term contracts. 

Again, I get that from LM’s perspective. The Braves owner is doing what it can to maximize profits. But I also get why some Braves fans are frustrated by all the talk about spending with little follow-through.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.