History shows Braves may have to spend more to be true contenders

Kyle Glaser of Baseball America notes that “24 of the last 25 World Series champions had an opening-day payroll in the top half of MLB” That includes the latest champions, the Nationals (third-highest). The Braves (17th) have consecutive losses in the National League Division Series. Do they need to spend more to have a chance to win the World Series?

I don’t want to be wishy-washy, but put me down for a maybe. There is a strong correlation between spending at least more than 15 ballclubs and winning a championship, but the causation might be oversimplified.

Many teams spend big and don't come close to sniffing the Word Series. Some of the best player talent is young and cheap (for the Braves that's Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies). Additionally, opening-day payroll doesn't give the full picture because teams can take on significant payroll during the season (the Braves did that, too).

But Glaser’s argument is that while a strong farm system and smart trades are necessary, and spending money isn’t a guarantee, the history is the history. And it shows that “in the (wild-card) era, there is a certain payroll threshold teams almost always have to cross to actually be World Series contenders.”

If that’s really the case — and it has been for every World Series champion in the wild-card era except for the 2003 Marlins — then Liberty Media is going to have to spend more than usual on the Braves’ payroll this offseason to give the team a real shot.

The Braves did add to their payroll during the 2019 season. They signed left-hander Dallas Keuchel to a $13 million deal in June. They added about $7 million more in salary in July with trades for relief pitchers Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin.

Still, even after those deals and others, the Braves’ payroll to end the season ($144 million) was 14th-highest among MLB teams. That figure is a 9% increase from the Braves’ payroll to end 2018. General manager Alex Anthopoulos said the Braves went “above and beyond” their budget for 2019, so we can conclude that LM’s planned payroll ceiling was less than a 9% increase from the $131 million to end 2018.

Maybe LM will authorize a significant increase in opening-day payroll for 2020 from the $117 million to begin 2019. I wouldn’t count on it.

Pitcher Dallas Keuchel joined the Braves midseason in 2019 with a $13 million price tag.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

The Braves’ payroll to begin this season was about the same as the start of 2018 and roughly equal to the 2014 opening payroll. The 2018 opening payroll was lower than the 2017 opening payroll. Profits have soared for LM’s baseball team and “fairly major real-estate business” at SunTrust Park while payroll has seen a modest increase that came later than promised.

We'll see how much LM allows Anthopoulos to spend before 2020 opening day. After re-signing catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis, the Braves have about $59 million committed to seven players, according to Spotrac. The other five are everyday players Freddie Freeman ($22.4 million); Acuna and Albies ($1 million each); closer Malancon ($19 million); and outfielder Ender Inciarte ($7.7 million).

There are nine Braves players eligible for salary arbitration. The pitchers include starter Mike Foltynewicz, setup man Greene and former closer Luke Jackson. The position players include Dansby Swanson, Adam Duvall, Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson.

Among those players, the Braves are sure to want to retain Foltynewicz, Greene and Swanson. Matt Swartz, who has developed an accurate arbitration model for MLB Trade Rumors, estimates that those three players can expect salaries that total $17.3 million. The projected salaries for Culberson ($1.8 million) and Camargo ($1.6 million) are reasonable enough that the Braves likely will bring them back, too.

Add those figures to the salary owed to the players under contract, and it bumps the Braves’ projected 2020 payroll to about $80 million for 12 players. That would leave 13 slots to fill on the active roster. And the Braves have some major needs to address.

Two pitchers who ended the season as part of the rotation, Keuchel and Julio Teheran, are free agents. As the loss to the Cardinals in the NLDS showed, the Braves need to add at least one front-line starter to be a serious contender. The bullpen also needs another good arm on the back end to provide better depth.

The Braves' biggest hole is at third base, where Josh Donaldson was great as a one-year rental and now will cash in as a free agent. Catcher also is a big need. Brian McCann retired and, after the McCann/Flowers tandem faded, the Braves won't be better at that position without a clear-cut No. 1.

Anthopoulos said Markakis will platoon, so the Braves also need at least one starting-quality outfielder. Really, they need two. Inciarte or Austin Riley wouldn’t be an upgrade. The same would be true at third base if they replace Donaldson with Riley or Camargo.

Maybe Anthopoulos again can find a way to patch together a team that can win the East. Sign bargain-priced veterans, accurately project improvement for young players and add pricier options via savvy midseason moves. The Braves have talented outfielders and starting pitchers in the minor leagues, so long-term deals for those positions may still be incompatible with long-term plans.

The additions of Donaldson and Keuchel showed how Anthopoulos can work around budget limitations and field a team that can win the East. The Braves bested big-spending division rivals in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. That's hard to do. The Braves shouldn't  overreact to losing a five-game playoff series in five games.

But history shows that for the Braves to become true World Series contenders, their owner may have to let its GM spend more for player talent between now and April.