If Braves don’t retain Dansby Swanson it won’t be because they can’t afford it

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The Phillies raised eyebrows when they signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year contract for $330 million. Harper was voted National League MVP at 22 years old and still was in his prime, but what about later? The Phillies are on the hook to pay Harper $288 million after his 30th birthday, which came in October. That includes $92 million for his 35-plus years.

Harper signed that deal in 2019. Now his total contract value is seventh richest in MLB. His 2023 salary ranks sixth among MLB outfielders. Every MLB team would like to employ Harper for $26 million next year and at least a couple of more after that. Harper won another MVP in 2021 and this year hit the home run that lifted the Phillies to their first NL pennant since 2009.

Keep Harper in mind as you see teams signing free agents to similar deals this offseason. Much of the attention is focused on the big salaries that will be paid during those players’ twilight years. But the strategy is keeping their average salaries down in the near term. That means smaller payrolls for luxury tax purposes and (theoretically) more flexibility to build rosters around stars.

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The teams eventually will pay a lot of money for declining players. That shouldn’t matter if the goal is to be a contender now. And if that isn’t the goal, then what’s the point of all this?

It’s strange to see fans say teams are dumb for signing players to big contracts into their 40s, even though those moves make them better now. Those fans say teams that refuse to do those type of deals are smart. It’s as if they think team owners will pass along the savings to their customers.

There’s a good chance that the Braves will get that kind of praise again soon. All indications point to them declining to spend what it will take to re-sign free agent Dansby Swanson.

Swanson is the best shortstop on the market after Carlos Correa, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts all signed. Correa will get $350 million over 13 years. Turner ($300 million) and Bogaerts ($280 million) both signed for 11 years. Swanson always was going to get fewer years and less money, but with the way the market’s going, he’s going to get an offer that’s longer and richer than what the Braves typically do.

If that’s the way it plays out, then the Braves would be making a choice free from financial constraints. The franchise is flush with cash and profits thanks to surging attendance at Truist Park. Of course, that could be a reason why they are under no pressure to increase payroll, but they have to keep the good times of winning going if they want that financial windfall to last.

The Braves would push their payroll above the first luxury-tax threshold if they re-sign Swanson and retain their key arbitration-eligible players. But that 20% tax on payroll expenditures above $230 million is relatively trivial. Stiffer, non-financial penalties don’t kick in until the tax payroll is $20 million above the threshold.

The Braves could follow their rivals by reducing the tax pain by signing Swanson to a deal that would spread his salaries over more than, say, six years. They’ve just never done that kind of deal once their players reach free agency. Swanson, like Freddie Freeman before him, is about to get a true measure of how much the Braves really value his services.

The Braves signed third baseman Austin Riley to a 10-year, $212 million contract extension in August. He’s 3 years younger than Swanson. The Braves signed Matt Olson to an eight-year, $168 million extension in March. He’s the same age as Swanson and plays a position that’s much less important defensively.

Freeman was 2 years older than Swanson when the Braves let him walk before last season. The Dodgers signed Freeman to a six-year, $162 million contract that will pay him $81 million after he’s 35. Olson’s contract expires when he’s 35. The Braves essentially got the lesser first baseman now for less financial risk later.

The Braves will make a similar calculation with Swanson. His potential replacement at shortstop, Vaughn Grissom, isn’t eligible for arbitration until after the 2024 season. If the Braves trade for a shortstop, that player won’t come with a lengthy, high-dollar contract. Otherwise, what would be the point of moving on from Swanson, the shortstop they know?

The Braves will be good even without Swanson. Three weeks ago, FanGraphs analyst Dan Szymborski released his projected standings. His statistical model had the Braves winning the NL East by 12 games, with Grissom doing well as Swanson’s replacement at shortstop. That forecast was before the Mets and Phillies signed top free agents. I’d still say the Braves will be favored to win the East without Swanson, if only because they always do it no matter how much their East rivals spend.

Maybe that history means there should be no concern about moving on from Swanson. But there is no doubt that the Braves would be better with him on the roster. And, again, isn’t being better now the whole point?

Swanson is a much better defender than Grissom at a premium position. It’s true that Swanson has produced only one full season of above-average offense (great timing that it happened in his contract year). Grissom has only 156 plate appearances of good offensive production in the majors and played only 22 games above the high-A level in the minors. The Braves will slip at the plate if Grissom can’t hack it as a regular, especially if they don’t get another good outfield bat.

Braves owner Liberty Media obviously has no obligation to re-sign Swanson or otherwise reinvest their exploding revenues into the roster. I’d argue that the $300 million in public money the Braves received for their ballpark creates some obligation to reinvest more of the profit from the stadium back into player payroll. But I’ve been making that case in three cities (Milwaukee, Miami and Atlanta) over 25 years, and the reality is the public just doesn’t care that much.

The Braves will take some heat if they don’t re-sign Swanson. The criticism wouldn’t last long. Liberty Media has a general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, with a proven record of building a winner without splurging on long-term deals for free agents. He will get every benefit of the doubt that he can keep that streak going.

But Anthopoulos and every other baseball GM would rather spend whatever amount is necessary to sign the players they want. The Braves probably won’t do that with Swanson. But they could if Liberty Media were so inclined.