If Ronald Acuna stays healthy and proves to be as good over the long term as his performance suggested in the second half of last season, the Braves got a bargain. On the other hand, if Acuna sustains a career-altering injury or if the league somehow figures out how to slow him, he gets $100 million regardless.
That’s the simplest analysis of Acuna’s new contract — a guaranteed eight-year deal, announced Tuesday, that also includes two additional seasons at the Braves’ option.
Acuna previously could have been eligible for salary arbitration before the 2021 season and for free agency before the 2025 season. With this deal, the Braves bought out his four arbitration seasons and up to four free-agent seasons (provided they pick up the two option years). They went from knowing they could have him for seven seasons (counting last year) to knowing they can have him for 11.
Acuna originally signed with the Braves for $100,000 as a 16-year-old international amateur in 2014. This contract has three more zeroes on it.
Both parties took a risk — the Braves the risk that Acuna won’t turn out to be the player everyone currently expects him to be (hey, it happens) and Acuna the risk that he might have made a lot more money over the next decade by passing up the financial security of this $100 million deal.
It is a risk the Braves had to seize because the contract allows them to hold on to their young star through much of his prime without encumbering the team financially in either the short or long term:
> For this season and 2020, Acuna’s salary will be $1 million per year. That’s just $440,000 more than it otherwise would have been this season ($560,000). The Braves’ 2019 payroll inches up from $114.4 million to $114.8 million, still the second lowest in the NL East and the Braves’ lowest in three years.
> In 2021, which could have been Acuna’s first arbitration-eligible season, he will make $5 million. The highest salary for a player in his first season of arbitration eligibility is $10.85 million by the Cubs’ Kris Bryant in 2018 (after winning the NL MVP award in 2016).
> In 2022, which could have been Acuna’s second arbitration-eligible season, he will make $15 million. The highest salary for a player in his second season of arbitration eligibility is Mookie Betts’ $20 million with the Boston Red Sox this season (coming off the AL MVP award in 2018).
> In 2023 and 2024, which could have been Acuna’s final two arbitration-eligible seasons, he will make $17 million each year. The record salary by any arbitration-eligible player is the $26 million Colorado’s Nolan Arenado agreed to for this season before signing a long-term deal.
> In 2025 and 2026, which could have been Acuna’s first two free-agent seasons, he’ll continue to make $17 million each year. Maybe he could command twice that much, or more, on the open market by then, but who knows what will happen in the meantime? Clearly, the Braves got a potentially significant discount by doing the deal with Acuna six years from free agency.
> Sweetening the deal for the Braves is that they also have options for the 2027 and 2028 seasons at $17 million apiece, with Acuna receiving a $10 million buyout if the team declines the first of those options. Baseball salaries presumably will be even further into the stratosphere by then. If the two option years are picked up, Acuna will make $124 million over 10 years.
The bottom line is that Braves fans should be able to enjoy Acuna without fretting for many years whether he’ll become too expensive for the team to keep.
Recall what Hank Aaron, the all-time greatest Braves player, said of Acuna 10 days ago: “If nothing happens to him, I think he’s going to set the world on fire. … I like his attitude. I like him as a ballplayer. I think the world of him.”
* * *
> Read Michael Cunningham’s column on the Acuna signing here.
> Read Gabe Burns’ report on the deal here.
> Read more of what Aaron had to say about Acuna here.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.