Schuerholz: Mid-market budget doesn’t inhibit high-level success

Braves president John Schuerholz was the team’s general manager throughout its unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 through 2005, doing it with payrolls that ranged from the bottom quarter of the majors at the beginning, to the top quarter for the bulk of the run, to middle-of-the-pack near the end.

Before coming to the Braves in October 1990, he spent 22 years in the Kansas City Royals organizational, working his way up from stints as farm director and scouting director to assistant general manager and GM from 1982-1990. Given his experiences, there are not many more familiar with both the luxuries of a huge payroll and the challenges of competing at an elite level while on a middle-class budget.

“I’ve always said if you have really good baseball operations/organizational intelligence and more money than the people you’re competing against, that’s the best combination,” said Schuerholz, 72, who moved from Braves GM to his current position after the 2007 season. “If you have baseball operational intelligence and not as much money as the guys you’re competing against, you’re still not daunted by that. You feel like you can still compete. You can put a team together.”

But you can’t afford to do it by filling holes with high-priced free agents, at least not often.

Teams with payroll constraints must emphasize drafting and developing talent to produce players who’ll be affordable for at least four or five years, before arbitration bumps some of their annual salaries toward eight figures and free agency provides the leverage for multi-year deals approaching or even surpassing $100 million for veteran stars.

“Your farm system, your scouting guys, your developmental process, your pipeline,” Schuerholz said. “No matter how much money you’re paying in major league salary, you’ve got guys coming through the system you can rely on to be part of your major league club and compete. And that’s the attitude I always had.”

That approach became especially important after 2003, as the Braves ended roughly a decade of residence among baseball’s highest-payrolled teams, a period that began with former owner Ted Turner spending whatever was deemed necessary to help assure the Braves remained a perennial power.

The Braves under corporate owner Time Warner slashed about $16 million from their payroll in one year, going from third-highest in the majors ($106 million) in 2003 — when the Mets ($117 million) were the only team between them and the Yankees ($153 million) in spending — to eighth in 2004 at $90 million, less than half of the Yankees’ $184 million that year.

The Braves’ home attendance had declined steadily since the late 1990s, and at 2.4 million in 2003 it was about 1 million below the Yankees’ home attendance, even as the Braves were winning the 12th of their 14 consecutive division titles.

A decade later, both the Braves’ payroll and attendance were squarely in the middle rankings of the 30-team major leagues. The payroll was just over $90 million in 2013, nearly equal to the 2004 payroll. The Braves say it could go to $98 million during the 2013 season, although it’s currently near $90 million again.

In the Braves’ first four seasons at Turner Field 1997-2000, they ranked in the majors’ top 20 percent in baseball in attendance and payroll. The balance shifted in 2001, when attendance began to slide. It took a few more years before team officials and/or ownership got the balance back by reducing payroll.

The Braves also are only seven years into a 20-year TV deal that is considered to be one of the sport’s worst, bringing the team what’s believed to be well under $20 million a year at a time when many other teams are negotiating or have already signed TV deals with rights fees exponentially greater, topped by the Dodgers’ new deal with Time Warner Cable that’s reportedly worth at least $220 million annually over the next 25 years.

Still, Braves officials including Schuerholz say they remain undeterred.

“Budgets are affected by income streams and revenue generation, and when that alters, you alter how you operate,” Schuerholz said. “But that doesn’t mean you give up. It doesn’t mean you give in. It doesn’t mean you cash in your cards. You’ve just got to be more creative and more diligent, and rely more on your home-grown players, which is always the secret sauce for me, for any organizational to succeed, is how well you’ve scouted and develop your own players.”

Teams with higher payrolls can afford to make more mistakes in drafts or free-agent signings than teams with tighter budgets.

As Schuerholz put it, “If you have more money and you’ve made draft mistakes, you go out and buy someone else’s developed players. Which is what the big-market clubs did for years. And then finally they awakened and said, ‘Wow, this scouting and player development thing is a good way to go. Let’s invest in that as much as we do buying everybody else’s players.’

“Anyway, it’s challenging, sure. It’s more difficult, sure. But it’s not impossible.”

Asked if it were more rewarding to win after overcoming payroll constraints and being more creative building a team, Schuerholz scoffed.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who gets into a job like the general manager of a major league baseball team and worries at the end of the day if they feel more rewarded,” he said. “No, you want to win. You want to build a winning team. Rewarding is if you win. That’s when it’s rewarding. Not how hard you worked or how creative you’ve been in the process.

“No. Rewarding is winning.”

As teams have shown year after year, from Oakland’s low-budget playoff teams of the “Moneyball” era to the 2007 NL champion Rockies, the 2008 AL champion Rays, and the 2010 AL champion Rangers (who had several key pieces acquired from the Braves in the 2007 Mark Teixeira trade) it’s possible to compete at the highest level without spending at the highest level. Challenging, yes. But quite possible.

“Oh, yeah, it doesn’t doom you to the basement,” Schuerholz said. “It doesn’t doom you to no playoff appearances. It just challenges you and makes it more … you’ve got to dig down a little harder, people have got to work a little harder, and go after it. And our guys have done that over the years.”