Tasks for Braves are re-signing Dansby Swanson, filling needs, avoiding tax

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Ronald Acuna didn’t get close to free agency before agreeing to a new contract with the Braves in 2019. Soon after, Ozzie Albies did the same. Austin Riley and Michael Harris both followed suit this month. Now the Braves have their best homegrown, young players locked up for years to come, with one notable exception.

Now the Braves must decide how much they are willing to pay to keep shortstop Dansby Swanson. He’s eligible to become a free agent after the season. For his first four seasons as a Braves regular, Swanson was a pretty good defender at a premium position with a below-average bat. His past two seasons have been the best of his career. This year he has a case for being MLB’s best shortstop.

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Swanson is the kind of guy the Braves want to keep around. Baseball general manager Alex Anthopoulos is big on clubhouse fit. But Anthopoulos must decide if Swanson’s recent performance as a hitter is the true measure of what he’ll produce going forward. And all those new contracts are adding up on future Braves payrolls.

Swanson, 28, is a bit older than the homegrown Braves who got new contracts. He still fits the team’s window of contention. Swanson is the same age as Matt Olson. Olson got an eight-year contract for $168 million soon after the Braves traded for him in March. He’s been more accomplished than Swanson for his career. Swanson plays a more valuable position and is on the come.

This season, Swanson ranks second to Francisco Lindor in Wins Above Replacement for shortstops. Realistically, Swanson won’t keep producing at the same level. This is an outlier year for him. But FanGraphs analyst Dan Szymborski’s projection system sees Swanson being better over the next four seasons than he was from 2017-20 before declining.

That would put Swanson is on a tier below shortstops with a longer record of being great. Swanson is not going to get paid like Carlos Correa ($35 million average salary), Lindor ($34 million), or Corey Seager ($32.5 million). I could see the Braves signing Swanson to a deal like Olson’s, which averages $21 million per year. But maybe another team offers Swanson more than that if he makes it to the free market.

The Braves are trying to prevent that. Re-signing Swanson would complete the core of position players the team has assembled for the next several years. Acuna, Albies, Riley, Harris and Olson all are under team control through at least 2027. Young Braves under team control for multiple years also include catcher William Contreras and starting pitchers Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Spencer Strider.

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The Braves signed their young players for bargains, especially Albies and Acuna. That’s created a lot of payroll breathing room for the Braves. It also means the salaries for those young players increase sooner than they would have otherwise. The Braves’ payroll could be creeping closer to the luxury tax threshold in future years, and it’s doubtful that Liberty Media ever would allow spending above it.

The Braves have a $214 million tax payroll so far in 2022 (the total is tallied at the season’s end). The threshold at which payroll is taxed at 20% starts at $233 million in 2023. The Braves already have about $130 million committed to the tax payroll next season. That’s assuming they don’t exercise a $20 million contract option for right-hander Charlie Morton and buy out the final year of right-hander Jake Odorizzi’s contract for about $5 million.

To that $130 million tax payroll, add the salaries for the arbitration-eligible players the Braves want to keep. The list includes starting pitchers Fried and Mike Soroka and top setup men A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek. Minter ($1.3 million salary in 2022), Matzek ($600,500) and Soroka ($2.8 million) can expect modest raises. Fried ($6.85 million) is due for a big bump in his third arbitration year.

Let’s say Fried’s salary ends up being $12 million for 2023. Assume the total for Soroka, Minter Matzek will be about $5 million. That would push the Braves’ tax payroll to $160 million or so for 2023. That still would be about $73 million below the threshold. But it doesn’t include the salaries the Braves add in free agency, for Swanson or other players, or trades.

Also, the Braves likely will add payroll during the 2023 season. This year’s stated payroll was about $174 million on opening day and is up to $193 million. The tax payroll will end up being only about $15 million below the $230 million threshold. The Braves could feel the tax squeeze next season if they keep spending.

They’ll have needs to fill. If Morton and Odorizzi depart, that will leave two open spots in the current rotation. Soroka could be one replacement. There also are candidates in the minors. But the whole idea of signing Morton was to stabilize a young rotation. If the Braves go that route again, they’ll need to sign another good veteran pitcher. They don’t come cheaply. Morton, 38, is making $20 million this season.

Braves closer Kenley Jansen also can become a free agent after this season. Raisel Iglesias is under contract next season. He closed for the Reds and Angels before the Braves traded for him last month. A deep bullpen, which is a focus for Anthopoulos, means re-signing or replacing Jansen. He’s making $16 million this season.

Left field also is a weak area for the Braves. Eddie Rosario and Marcell Ozuna are signed for next season, but they’re producing little now. The Braves may want to add another veteran outfielder to the mix as an upgrade alongside Harris and Acuna. Otherwise, they could have a hole in left field for at least one more season.

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The four-year, $65 million contract that Ozuna signed before the 2021 season has become a sunk cost. Ozuna played only 48 games in 2021. He got hurt and then was arrested on accusations that he strangled his wife. This season Ozuna is a candidate for worst everyday player in MLB. Ozuna didn’t play during the Mets series this week and then was arrested on a DUI charge in Gwinnett County early Friday morning.

At least Ozuna’s contract is the only real albatross on the Braves’ long-term ledger. The below-market deals signed by Acuna and Albies helped the payroll outlook. The squeeze will get a little tighter once the new raises for Riley, Harris and Olson kick in. Re-signing Swanson would add more to the ledger.

The Braves should do it for a fair price, and then count on Anthopoulos filling out the roster without flirting with the luxury tax.