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January 16, 2014

Overthinking It

How the Braves Can Keep a Good Thing Going

by Ben Lindbergh

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When it comes to building baseball teams, it’s generally good to be young, but bad to be the youngest. A young team tends to have fewer players who’ll get hurt or head downhill, which bodes well, all else being equal. But fielding an especially high percentage of young players is often a sign that a team plans to throw in the towel short term, making do with league minimum instead of ponying up for performance.

This is more true on offense than it is on the mound, because pitchers tend to arrive in the majors roughly as good as they’re going to get. Of the 10 clubs projected to have the youngest pitching staffs this season, six made the playoffs in 2013, and seven were winning teams. Of the 10 clubs projected to have the youngest batters, only two are coming off playoff appearances. Which is why it stood out, as I researched the potentially historically old Yankees, that the Atlanta Braves bucked that trend. Here are the teams with the five lowest projected average team batting ages for 2014, based on our depth charts:

Team

Proj. Avg. Batting Age

Astros

25.6

Cubs

26.9

Mariners

26.9

Braves

27.3

Marlins

27.5

That’s the Braves surrounded by a whole bunch of bad. Atlanta is the only overlap on the list of highest projected NL team True Averages (excluding pitcher hitting), based on the same depth charts:

Team

Proj. True Average

NL Age Rank

Dodgers

.278

2

Cardinals

.273

5

Nationals

.270

6

Giants

.269

3

Braves

.268

14

So the Braves’ batters are projected to be both good and young, which sets them apart from those of every other team. They also have a younger projected pitching staff than any other contender:

Team

Proj. Avg. Pitching Age

Marlins

24.7

Braves

26.3

Cardinals

26.4

Mariners

26.5

Athletics

26.9

On the surface, those stats would suggest that the Braves are building a dynasty: the rare roster that’s competitive now and set up for the future. But Atlanta is also an anomaly in another way: unlike a lot of young teams, the Braves don’t have a ton of control over their core.

Of the team’s most prominent 25-and-under position players—Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Andrelton Simmons—only Simmons has yet to enter his arb years. Freeman is first-time arb eligible this winter; Heyward, who’s still just 24, is an arb-2 guy (as is 29-year-old Chris Johnson). Upton’s current contract runs through 2015. On the pitching side, it’s more of the same: Kris Medlen is also in his second year of arbitration eligibility, Mike Minor is a super two, and Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, and Brandon Beachy are first-time eligible, leaving just two starters, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, in the pre-arb category.

According to MLBTradeRumors, 146 players filed for arbitration this yer. The Braves have 11 of them. The other four teams on the list above of the youngest clubs by batting age have an average of 4.5. So how did a team as young as Atlanta end up with so many players who are about to be expensive?

At least part of the answer: by ignoring service-time considerations. The Braves are aware that it’s possible to delay the start of a service clock by pushing back a promotion, and they know that plenty of teams—maybe most teams—take advantage of the extra time. They’ve just chosen not to be one of them.

Think back to the beginning of 2010, when the Braves were deciding what to do with Heyward. A .323/.408/.555 season spread across three minor-league levels in 2009 had made him the consensus top prospect in baseball; the following spring, the then-20-year-old outfielder hit .305/.423/.424 in 59 spring training at-bats. The Braves’ scouty sense told them that Heyward was ready, but he’d played in only three Triple-A games. Many teams would have sent him down and said something about “seasoning,” only to predictably decide he was major-league material the day after determining that they’d waited long enough to retain an extra year of team control and avoid super-two status.

The Braves didn’t do that. “I don’t know how we could have faced our players or the fans if we had done that,” GM Frank Wren said at the time. On the same day, in an interview at Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein asked the Braves’ then-director of baseball administration (now assistant GM) John Coppolella whether service time concerns would sway the Heyward decision. Quoth Coppolella:

I don't think it enters into it at all. In the four years I've been with the Braves I've never heard talk about service time, super twos, arbitration eligibility... any of that. It's never factored into any decision we've made since I've been here.

He then concluded:

If we feel he's ready, we're not going to concern ourselves with what happens three years from now or six years from now.

Well, it’s three years from then. In the short term, the decision played out perfectly for Atlanta: Heyward had a 4.0 WARP season, and the Braves won the Wild Card by one game before going on to lose a four-game NLDS to San Francisco. The Braves couldn't have known that Heyward would make the difference, but they were at a place on the competitive curve where each win meant a lot, and they were rewarded for rolling the dice. Now, though, the bill is coming due. Heyward is heading for free agency after 2015 and will cost the Braves an estimated $4.5 million this season, part of a projected $38.25 million outlay in arbitration—over 40 percent of their payroll last year (and according to Peter Gammons, their payroll for 2014, too).

So do the Braves regret that decision? I haven't asked Coppolella, but I’m sure he’d say no. There was, after all, that 2010 trip to October, their first since the end of their historic postseason appearance streak in 2005 and a sentimental sendoff for Bobby Cox in his last season as skipper. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

The question is whether that playoff berth in the hand could cost two in the bush, since dismissing service time might not be a sustainable strategy for a team in Atlanta’s current context. As Grant Brisbee pointed out earlier this month, the Braves are essentially a small-market team, at least compared to their main competition in the NL East. They’re seven years into a 20-year TV contract that’s believed to pay them somewhere between $10-20 million per season (with a four-percent annual increase and no out clause), which would make it one of the smallest broadcast deals—if not the smallest—in baseball. The Phillies, Mets, and Nationals make many times as much. If we’re living through a broadcast bubble, the Braves may have missed their chance to cash in before it bursts.

The result is that Atlanta’s financial advantage has evaporated: their spending has stayed static while other teams’ has increased. In 2001, the Braves spent $91.0 million on player payroll and were the sixth-highest spenders. Last year, they spent $90.0 million and ranked 18th. Unless the Braves’ proposed new park reverses the trend if and when it opens in 2017, the gap between them and the game’s upper class is only going to grow. But Braves CEO Terry McGuirk isn’t conceding defeat, saying last year, “We just have to be a little bit better in a bunch of other areas. And I think we are.”

Some of those areas, presumably, are amateur scouting, player development, and acquisitions at the minor- and major-league levels. As Grant put it, “The Braves are the Rays. They're the Athletics. They're have-nots in a haves world, and they'll have to be smarter, always smarter.”

And they have been smart, give or take an Upton signing and a Teixeira trade: most of the arb-eligible players I mentioned above were drafted and developed by the Braves. But it’s tough to keep the talent flowing forever, and the Braves’ system—which underwent an instructional shakeup at the end of last year—now lacks high-ceiling talent. (Jason Parks estimates that they'll fall into the 20-25 range in the upcoming organizational rankings.) Moreover, they haven’t yet done the things that teams like the Rays have in order to ball on a budget

The 2011 Rays, like the 2010 Braves, won the Wild Card by one game, but unlike Atlanta, who eked out that edge by ignoring Heyward’s service time, the Rays nearly cost themselves a playoff spot by pursuing the opposite approach with Desmond Jennings. Sam Fuld hit .240/.313/.360 for the Rays that season, primarily in left field, but Jennings didn’t get the call to replace him until late July, after which he hit .259/.356/.449. We saw them do much the same thing with Wil Myers last season, keeping the eventual AL Rookie of the Year in Durham until mid-June. Unlike Wren, Friedman has no trouble facing the fans after making a financially motivated move (maybe it helps that Tampa’s attendance is so sparse).

Nor have the Braves signed the products of their system to team-friendly deals, à la Evan Longoria's and Matt Moore's. It’s been almost six years since the Braves last extended a homegrown player (Brian McCann, prior to the 2007 season). That has to change. The Braves can’t afford to squander their drafting and development skills by starting their young stars’ service clocks early, then letting them leave or waiting until the eve of free agency to try to re-sign them; at that point, the price of locking up players like Heyward, Freeman, and Simmons would be prohibitive. And they may have to make some hard choices, prioritizing some players and trying to trade those they can live without (like Kimbrel) for young talent.

There’s something admirable about Wren’s service time stance: he’s operating the way we wished teams would operate, with an eye on the prize and not on the payroll. But because the Braves aren’t as wealthy as they once were, the two are increasingly intertwined. So before it’s too late to keep the core together, they have to take two lessons to heart. First, one from Andrew Friedman:

[Extensions are necessary] for us we want to be able to extend our competitive window by as many years as we can. And to have a chance to keep our nucleus together for an extra year, an extra two years is critical for us.

And second, one from John Hart, who pioneered the trend toward early extensions as the GM of the Indians in the mid-1990s:

We were running an entire crop through that were all going to hit arbitration within one or two years of each other and we never could have afforded it.

For now, Braves fans can take comfort in the fact that their team should succeed this season. And as for the future? Here’s a positive sign: the Braves just hired John Hart.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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