The star-spangled Braves - good value for great talent

Braves first baseman Matt Olson (foreground) and third baseman Austin Riley greet fans as they walk to Georgia Power Pavilion Stage during Braves Fest Opening Rally at The Battery Atlanta, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Braves first baseman Matt Olson (foreground) and third baseman Austin Riley greet fans as they walk to Georgia Power Pavilion Stage during Braves Fest Opening Rally at The Battery Atlanta, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

ESPN ranks eight Braves among MLB’s top 74 players. Ronald Acuna is No. 14, Ozzie Albies No. 74. In between come Austin Riley, Max Fried, Michael Harris, Spencer Strider, Matt Olson and Sean Murphy. That’s two pitchers, one catcher, three infielders and two outfielders. That’s what you’d call comprehensive.

We note that Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson, famous former Braves, are ranked No. 5 and No. 54, respectively. This tells us what we already knew: This club is willing to pay for big-time talent, but it isn’t willing to pay just anything, not even for faces of the franchise.

Maybe you hate that Freeman’s a Dodger and Swanson’s a Cub, but there’s a greater lesson at play: You can build a top-shelf roster without going the way of Silicon Valley Bank. The Braves will pay $83.5 million – using Spotrac’s adjusted salaries – to those eight ESPN-ranked players in 2023.

Swanson signed with the Cubs for seven years at an average annual value of $25.2M. Freeman signed with L.A. for an AAV of $27M over six years. Freeman is under contract until he’s 37; Swanson is until he’s 35. You make the call: Is it better to have eight players at $83.5M – granted, this will rise over time – or two at $52.5M?

Oh, and the average age of the eight Braves is 26. The oldest is 29. Swanson is likewise 29. Freeman’s 33.

Spotrac puts the Braves’ 2023 payroll at $187.4M. That’s the eighth-highest among MLB clubs, but it’s good value for a team that’s coming off 101 wins and a fifth consecutive division title. The Mets’ payroll is $335.9M; the Phillies’ is $231.6M. The Angels’ is $202.8M, and they last finished above .500 in 2015.

Not incidentally, the Angels have ESPN’s Nos. 1 and 2 players – Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. They have none among the next 98. I believe this is what’s known as top-heavy. You can get away with this in basketball, where only five play at a time. You can’t in baseball, where you need five to fill a rotation and five more to staff a bullpen.

Alex Anthopoulos became the Braves’ general manager in November 2017. He inherited an organization coming off three years of manic rebuilding. Albies and Fried had just reached the majors; Acuna and Riley were coming fast. Anthopoulos could have done nothing, and this team would have gotten good. He didn’t do nothing.

Four of the eight ranked Braves are Anthopoulos acquisitions. Harris and Strider were drafted. Olson and Murphy came in separate trades with Oakland, the first in anticipation of Freeman’s departure, the second ahead of Swanson’s. Unlike Olson, Murphy wasn’t a positional replacement. The Braves will pay Orlando Arcia, the surprise winner of the spring shortstop sweepstakes, $1.3M this season. Yes, that looks a bit odd.

As much as we’ve lauded the long-term vision and short-term smarts of Anthopoulos, the biggest issue the Braves face is the issue every club faces – starting pitching. Their highest-paid starter remains Charlie Morton, who’ll make another $20M before turning 40 in November. As a rookie, Strider signed a six-year extension that leaves him under club control through 2029. Kyle Wright isn’t yet eligible for arbitration.

This leaves Fried, among the best in the business. He turned 29 in January. Should he and the Braves again go to arbitration next spring, that’s a bad sign. If he doesn’t have a new contract by then, he’s apt to hang on through 2024 and become a free agent. Under Anthopoulos, the Braves haven’t had a pitcher this good who has the option to leave.

From the Braves’ handling of Freeman and Swanson – if you’re still mad about it, you might call it mishandling – we know this GM has a price ceiling. The most overpriced commodity in baseball is starting pitching. Justin Verlander, who’s 40, signed with the Mets for $86.6M over two years. Assuming he makes 30 starts per year, that’s $1.4M per turn, not counting playoffs.

Fried isn’t Verlander – he has three fewer Cy Young Awards and is 11 years younger. It will be fascinating to see how Anthopoulos handles his ace. One thing we know: The price of a No. 1 starter never goes down.

If you’re looking for reasons to fret about the Braves’ future – you’d have to be looking hard – you’ll land on pitching. Most everything else is set. Of the eight everyday positions, six are manned by top-100 players under club control through at least 2027. That’s five more seasons. That’ll take the streak of division titles to 10.

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