There were two Braves-related headlines Thursday. One was great for their bottom line. The other shined a light on their reputation as cheapskates.
In the morning, Braves owner Liberty Media announced that revenue and profit increased dramatically in 2018, the team’s second season at taxpayer-subsidized SunTrust Park. The Braves won and the fans came. Meanwhile, player payroll is less than a year ago after Braves officials said that increased revenue in the new ballpark would mean more spending on players.
Hours after Liberty Media crowed about its profits, news broke that the Phillies and free agent Bryce Harper agreed to a 13-year, $330 million contract. The Phillies already had made significant expenditures on payroll. Now they’ve added one of the two best free-agent hitters of 2019.
The Braves won the National League East in 2018. Now the Phillies should be favored to win it in 2019. The Mets and Nationals got better this offseason, too.
The Braves never were going to get into the bidding for Harper or Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million from the Padres). No one expected that. Everyone understands this isn’t the market for those kinds of deals.
The Braves signed Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million contract and gave minor deals to free agents Nick Markakis and Brian McCann. Some of their fans expected more. That’s understandable because, for years, the Braves have said they would spend more on a team in the new ballpark.
To repeat as East champions, the Braves will need Donaldson to regain his pre-injury form (probable). They will need their star young players from 2018 to continue their ascent (possible). They will need contributions from some young players who didn’t give them much last year (questionable).
If those things happen, the Braves have a decent chance to win the East. If they fade to also-rans then, as noted previously in this space , more of their customers might notice that those profits aren’t flowing to player payroll as promised.
The Phillies were under tremendous pressure to sign Harper. In November franchise owner John Middleton declared that the team planned to “get a little bit stupid” with spending money. It took a while, but the Phillies finally did it.
Harper’s contract is the longest ever given in free agency and tops the record $325 million Giancarlo Stanton got from the Marlins. (Zack Greinke’s six-year deal with the Diamondbacks still has the highest annual value at $34.4 million.) According to multiple reports, Harper’s contract also includes a no-trade clause.
You can argue whether such deals are cost-effective. You can’t dispute that players such as Machado and Harper make their teams measurably better. No one player can put a medicore baseball team over the top, but adding a star can make the difference for a team with a good core in place.
The Phillies have that nucleus. This offseason they traded for All-Star Juan Segura, who is set to make $43 million over the next four years. They signed Andrew McCutchen for three years and $50 million. The Phillies also surrendered a top pitching prospect for star catcher J.T. Realmuto, whom the Braves had also pursued.
Those expenditures were chump change compared with what it took to sign Harper. Eventually that could be stupid money. Harper will be nearly 39 years old when it expires, and the no-trade clause makes him harder to move before then.
Right now, Philly fans are happy. They may not be if, years from now, the team isn’t winning, Harper isn’t producing and he can’t be traded. Or maybe those fans wouldn’t mind if there are World Series runs during Harper’s prime, which should last at least another four years.
Braves backers can only dream about their team spending that kind of money. It won’t matter much if they keep winning. It’s fun to watch a young club grow and best the big spenders in the division.
If the Braves start losing, it would be a bad look for their corporate owner to keep hoarding profits as the NL East’s other teams spend significant cash. I don’t know of any fans who root for fiscally responsibility. They may like The Battery, but they aren’t cheering for the self-proclaimed major real estate business.
The Braves may never spend big. The AJC’s Tim Tucker reports that Liberty Media plans to borrow money to fund the next phase of construction at The Battery. Team officials cited stadium construction debt as the reason why they didn’t add to player payroll last year like they said they would. Now they are looking to add more debt.
The Braves might be good enough to win the NL East even with Harper still in it. After all, he played 159 games for the Nats in 2018. It looked like the Braves wouldn’t have to worry about it when the Dodgers and Giants made a late run at Harper.
Before the Harper news broke FanGraphs projected the Phillies to win 83 games, seven behind the Nationals and one ahead of the Mets and Braves. It forecasts a 4.8 fWAR for Harper which, if it came to pass, could be enough to put the Phillies in the wild-card race. If Harper provides higher production — his career-high 9.3 fWAR in 2015 remains an outlier, but 4.8 seems on the low end — then the Phillies could be World Series contenders.
The Braves will have to deal with Harper in the division for a while longer after the Phillies put their money where their owner’s mouth is. Who knows if the Braves will ever do the same.
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