How long can the Braves afford their young core?

It was just the other day that this correspondent declared, "For now, (the Braves are) a team that can stand as the envy of baseball. It's young and gifted and affordable."

Keen readers surely noted those two loaded words – “for now.” What’s true in 2014 won’t be true in 2016. The nice thing about young and gifted rosters is that they grow up and win a lot of games. What’s not so nice is that young and gifted rosters get less and less affordable.

The Braves are seeing the first signs of that. Not since John Rocker in 2001 has a player taken the Braves to an arbitration hearing, but three members of the team’s young core — Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman — are set to do it. The Braves avoided further arbitration by signing three other key players — Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Chris Johnson — to one-year deals just before the filing deadline.

Never pleasant, arbitration is nonetheless the lesser hurdle. Soon will come free agency. The Braves just bid adieu to Brian McCann, who signed with the Yankees for $85 million over five seasons, which represented a raise of $5 million per year over his 2013 salary. So long as the Braves are owned by the faceless Colorado conglomerate Liberty Media and their TV deal is a bargain-basement thing, this team won’t be able to keep all its young guys. But can it keep enough?

(And before you ask: Revenues from the new ballpark in Cobb County won’t bail out the Braves completely. Heyward, Medlen and Justin Upton are eligible to become free agents after the 2015 season; Kimbrel, Freeman, Johnson and Brandon Beachy will be eligible in 2016. The new stadium is scheduled to open in 2017.)

The obvious solution would be for the Braves to sign some of their young players to long-term contracts before free agency draws nigh. Wrote Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus: "It's been almost six years since the Braves last extended a homegrown player (McCann, before the 2007 season). That has to change. The Braves can't afford to squander their drafting and development skills by … letting (players) leave or waiting until the eve of free agency to try to re-sign them."

Speaking by phone this week, Lindbergh conceded that such a tack is more easily written than taken. “With the extensions we’re seeing that are really team-friendly, most of those are with players who are barely in big leagues,” he said. “The further away a player is from free agency, the more risk he has. But with the Braves’ core, most of them have established themselves. (The Braves) possibly might have already missed the window of getting a good deal.”

There’s also the issue of prioritizing. Is Heyward, who at 24 remains a player of immense potential but whose best big-league season came in his rookie year of 2010, truly indispensable? Is Kimbrel, who’s the best closer in the business but who works one inning a night? Is Freeman, the best pure hitter the Braves have produced since McCann? Is Andrelton Simmons, the finest defender in baseball at any position?

Speaking Thursday, general manager Frank Wren said: “That’s a real hairy area, and I’d really prefer not to go into it. Who’s the core and who’s not the core? These are discussions we have routinely. … We do five-year projections of what our roster will look like, and we’re continually adding young players to the mix. We ask ourselves, ‘Who are the key players we need to extend — are realistically could extend?’”

Back to McCann’s 2007 extension: Jeff Francoeur, who was then a bigger name than his erstwhile roommate, refused a similar long-term deal. In hindsight, Francoeur made a financial mistake — his career would crater after the 2007 season — but his I-can-wait-for-a-bigger-payday stance was more the rule than the exception. Fewer young players are passing up the chance to become free agents after Season No. 6. (By signing the extension, McCann became a free agent only after his eighth full season.)

With a payroll that has only twice budged above $95 million the past decade, the Braves can’t hope to re-up everyone. Neither can they let everyone grow up and walk away. If Lindbergh were occupying Wren’s perch, what would he do?

“It would make sense to trade a guy like Kimbrel, who seems most expendable,” Lindbergh said. “If I were targeting one guy, I’d maybe go with Simmons. He’s the furthest away (from free agency) and might be willing to settle for a little less.”

Kimbrel? Expendable? In the minds of some baseball men, the greatest closer isn’t that much better than a garden-variety one. (Most any old closer, the thinking goes, is capable of getting three outs.) Other baseball men hold that nothing destroys a team quicker than a run of blown saves.

If Kimbrel wins at arbitration, he'll make $9 million this season. (If he loses, he'll be forced to accept the Braves' offer of $6.55 million, which was 10 times last year's salary.) Some have advocated that the Braves should try to deal Kimbrel, but David Schoenfield of ESPN's SweetSpot called his trade value "minimal" for the reason expressed above.

No matter what the arbitrator decides, the Braves will soon face a difficult decision: Can a team of modest means afford to keep baseball’s best reliever? And that’s just one of several excruciating choices that must be faced. For now, the Braves can be proud of their splendid young core. But that confounded clock is ticking.