The Braves are on the verge of opening the season with a major-league player payroll of about $114 million, their lowest in three years and the second lowest in the National League East this year, according to calculations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The payroll, barring a significant acquisition before Thursday’s first pitch in Philadelphia, will fall well short of meeting expectations raised by Braves executives’ statements in recent years that spending on players would rise consistently after the move to SunTrust Park.
Instead, the payroll is lower than it was at the start of the past two seasons -- $126.1 million in 2017 and $116.05 million in 2018 – and only about $2 million higher than on opening day in 2014, the season before the Braves began their multi-year organizational rebuild.
The AJC’s annual calculations of the Braves’ opening-day payrolls include players on the 25-man roster and on the injured list and, when applicable, released or traded players who are still being paid by the Braves. The calculations don’t include players who open the season in the minor leagues.
The current $114.4 million payroll is well below that of the three teams expected to challenge the defending champion Braves in the NL East -- the Washington Nationals (approximately $162 million), New York Mets ($158 million) and Philadelphia Phillies ($140 million). Only the Miami Marlins, rebuilding again, have a smaller payroll in the division (about $72 million).
Across MLB, the Braves' payroll ranks 21st among the 30 teams, according to sports contracts tracker Spotrac.com.
The Braves and team owner Liberty Media have continued to say the team has money available to spend on players, although they won’t disclose how much.
“We’ve explored different things. We’ve had offers out,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said this week. “There have been various times of the offseason we’ve had some really big longer-term big AAV (average annual value) deals out that ultimately you have a walkaway point. And even this spring we have explored some things.”
Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei recently told investors: "I think the Atlanta management knows they have capacity to do more and are looking for the right deal."
Two players, third baseman Josh Donaldson and first baseman Freddie Freeman, account for about 39 percent of the Braves’ payroll, making $23 million and $21.36 million, respectively. At the other end of the payroll, 14 young players without negotiating leverage will make $585,000 or less.
Other than signing Donaldson and catcher Brian McCann as free agents, it was a quiet offseason for the Braves. They didn’t address a problematic bullpen, at least to this point, and they took low-budget approaches to addressing needs at catcher (signing McCann for $2 million) and right field (re-signing Nick Markakis for $4 million this season).
Anthopoulos wouldn’t comment in any specificity on two still-unsigned high-profile free-agent pitchers, closer Craig Kimbrel and starter Dallas Keuchel. “Generally speaking, anyone that is still out there on the market, I would say we’re still keeping tabs on. That is probably the best way to put it,” Anthopoulos said. “… I believe ultimately they’re going to play baseball this year, and they’re going to sign. But where, to who, that is tough to say.”
Anthopoulos said he learned as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays from 2010-15 that offseason spending sprees can backfire if deals aren’t made for sound reasons. He cited the winter following the 2012 season as one in which Toronto erred by overdoing things.
“Ultimately, it didn’t work out,” said Anthopoulos, whose Blue Jays lost 88 games and finished last in the AL East in 2013. “We added all these contracts and did all these things, and everyone was excited. Baseball-wise, we had some concerns (about the moves), but we went forward with it. And ultimately it hamstrung us for the next offseason.
“I’ve been through the win-the-offseason PR. ... I learned my lesson.”
Still, it is surprising to many observers that the Braves haven't increased their payroll since winning the NL East last season -- especially given what Maffei described as an "arms race" in the division, the dramatic increase in Braves revenue the past two seasons and team officials' statements as far back as 2014 that the payroll would rise consistently once the new stadium's revenue streams kicked in.
The Donaldson and McCann signings didn’t increase the payroll because their combined salaries effectively replaced the $25 million the Braves spent last year on Adrian Gonzalez and Kurt Suzuki.
There is one significant improvement in the Braves' payroll picture for this season: There's virtually no "dead money." By contrast, last season's opening day payroll included $33 million that the Braves paid Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir not to play for them. (Both were acquired as part of a deal that got rid of Matt Kemp's contract).
So, if 2015 American League MVP Donaldson stays healthy, the Braves have the potential to get more bang for their bucks this season.
“There were some other things we looked to do, but our No. 1 thought was to add a bat,” Anthopoulos said. “And we were going to be opportunistic with other guys.
“There’s no doubt we’ll review this free-agent class at the end of the year, and we’ll look back and say, ‘Were we light on someone? Were we high on somebody?’” Anthopoulos said. “But you have to make the decisions that you believe in with the information that you have. … For us, Josh Donaldson was the move we really wanted to make. We’ll find out, obviously, over time.”
Josh Donaldson, 3B, $23 million
Freddie Freeman, 1B, $21.36 million
Julio Teheran, SP, $11.17 million
Kevin Gausman, SP, $9.35 million*
Darren O’Day, RP, $9 million*
Ender Inciarte, CF, $5.7 million
Mike Foltynewicz, SP, $5.475 million*
Arodys Vizcaino, RP, $4.8 million
Tyler Flowers, C, $4 million
Nick Markakis, RF, $4 million
Jonny Venters, RP, $2.25 million
Brian McCann, C, $2 million
Charlie Culberson, IF-OF, $1.395 million
Matt Joyce, OF, $1.25 million
Josh Tomlin, RP, $1.25 million
Dansby Swanson, SS, $585,000
Luke Jackson, RP, $585,000
Ozzie Albies, 2B, $575,000
Jesse Biddle, RP, $575,000
Johan Camargo, IF-OF, $575,000
Shane Carle, RP, $575,000
A.J. Minter, RP, $575,000*
Sean Newcomb, SP, $575,000
Ronald Acuna, OF, $565,000
Max Fried, P, $565,000
Wes Parsons, RP, $565,000
Chad Sobotka, RP, $565,000
Bryse Wilson, SP, $565,000
Kyle Wright, SP, $565,000
TOTAL: $114.4 million
*- Gausman, O’Day, Foltynewicz and Minter will open the season on the injured list.
Note: Figures include 2019 salaries and prorated portions of any signing bonuses paid by the Braves. Contract termination pay of $393,750 to RP Sam Freeman is included in total. Incentive bonuses and benefits are not included. Players who will open the season in the minor leagues and potential buyouts of contract options for 2020 are not included. Sources: AJC reporting, USA Today's MLB salary database, Spotrac.com.
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