November 24, 2015
Outta Left Field
The Strangest Thing About the Braves' Sell-Off
It may feel like centuries ago to Atlanta fans, but midway through 2014 the Braves appeared poised for another mid-'90s run. They had won 96 games the previous season, were in first place as the July trade deadline approached, and fielded a young, talented core of exciting young superstars under club control well into the future.
Then a sputtering offense and a late-season collapse ended the year on a dismal note, Atlanta’s 79-83 record putting them in a tie for second place but a whopping 17 games behind the Nationals. Rather than retool for a quick turnaround, the Braves fired general manager Frank Wren in September and took a radical approach to remaking the roster, trading off many of those young, exciting players to replenish the farm system and slash payroll. Not just Justin Upton and Jason Heyward—both creeping up on free agency—but Evan Gattis, Craig Kimbrel, Alex Wood and Andrelton Simmons, not to mention Cameron Maybin, who’d been acquired in the first round of sell-offs. There are rumblings, too, that Atlanta's shopping Freeman, a 26-year-old first baseman entering year three of an eight-year, $135 million pact, and anyone else owed money. (General Manager John Coppolella says otherwise).
Slow-burn rebuilds are all the rage these days, as organizations like the Astros and Cubs—and even the Royals, though with less fanfare—have shown the payoff to a patient, process-driven. What makes the Braves sudden about-face puzzling, however, is that they had drafted and developed and extended the young stars that a rebuilding team is in constant search of—the Simmonses, the Kimbrels, the Freemans, the Teherans—while generally avoiding the albatross contract. The core was in place, and it was young and reasonably cheap and performing well, and yet the Braves decided to throw it in reverse and go in another direction.
Despite the series of head-scratchers, the Braves are probably really smart—no, they're definitely smart. There's 72 combined years of front office experience between John Schuerholz and John Hart, new GM John Coppolella has been a darling of Future GM lists for years, and there's a decades-long organizational tradition of superior scouting and development. So let's concede for a moment that the Braves know their own organization better than the outside world, and that a rebuild was indeed a smart—or, at least, defensible—route for them to take. Let's concede that they're nabbing the right prospects in trades and that they're going to restock the minor-league pipeline with the right draft picks and international signings, developed smartly to turn into productive major leaguers. Let's concede that in three or four years the Braves might regain their position as NL East favorites and start spitting out 90-plus-win seasons annually.
But here’s the problem: The Braves are set to move into a new, publicly funded stadium in Cobb County in 2017, and even if the rebuild goes smoothly, they seem unlikely to be in a position to win by then. There's an unwritten rule to the art of stadium-building that says if you're going to use the public's money to fund shiny new digs (and you bet the Braves are), you at least have to make a good-faith effort to put a solid product on the field. The Braves are trending in the opposite direction, cutting payroll and trading off cornerstone players while construction crews are turning the $672 million SunTrust Park from blueprint to reality.
Have other teams acted similarly? I checked. Since 1990, only a quarter of teams cut payroll the year they headed into a new stadium, and three of the exceptions—the Cardinals, Astros, and Yankees—shed costs by five percent or less. Not a single team had a lower payroll the year they moved into a new stadium than in the average of the three prior years. On the other hand, 65 percent of teams increased payroll by at least 10 percent when changing addresses, led by the Marlins (107 percent), Pirates (95 percent), and Indians (81 percent).
The following table displays how much the average team's attendance shifted in the four years prior to moving into a new stadium.
For the Braves to follow a similar trajectory as the typical team, their payroll would need to sit around $142 million by the start of the 2017 season. Right now they've committed just under $70 million to players under contract for the 2016 season—not counting arb-eligible and league-minimum guys—and $51 million by 2017, a large chunk of which is owed to possible trade candidate Freeman. Here's why:
Remember when we conceded that the Braves were smart. Well, they probably are, but baseball is unrelentingly difficult to figure out, and sometimes smart doesn't cut it. The Braves have focused their rebuild on young pitching, and everybody loves young pitching. The Kimbrel return was headlined by Matt Wisler; the Simmons return was headlined by Sean Newcomb; the (Justin) Upton return was headlined by Max Fried; both the Heyward and Maybin deals spun a pair of pitchers Atlanta's way. Shoot, even the Gattis deal brought back two hurlers to every one position player.
Young pitching is great when it works out (see: the Mets), but the Braves have turned a capable roster inside out for a high-stakes gamble on the fates of eight or 10 arms, two or three of which could be ravaged by Tommy John surgery, another by an imperceptible but important loss of deception, another two to velocity drops and mechanical issues. Young pitching as an abstract concept is great; in practice, it's something else.
Another thing smarts can't fully combat is frugality. If ownership wants Player X traded because he signed a reasonable extension two years ago, then player X is probably headed elsewhere. Atlanta's trade binge appears to be more about cost-cutting than a true, organic, this-is-what's –best-for-the-organization rebuild. When the Braves dealt Kimbrel to San Diego, for example, they got back a weaker-than-expected package of prospects because they attached (Melvin) Upton's bad contact into the deal (Atlanta did take on the contracts of Maybin and Carlos Quentin). The Padres turned around and dealt an untethered Kimbrel—a year older, coming of his worst season, with just two years left on a team-friendly deal—a week and a half ago and received a significantly better haul of prospects than the Braves did back in April.
Even if the Braves decide this isn't a long-term rebuild—and GM Coppolella and Co. insist it isn't, with the CEO mentioning expected payroll jumps by January 1, 2017—it's still fair to question their approach. Why trade homegrown players familiar to the organization for other teams' risk-drenched prospects? Maybe, instead of going down that road, Simmons and Kimbrel (etc.) could have served as the franchise players when SunTrust Park opens in 2017, and the Braves could have found a less extreme way of turning an 83-loss team back into a contender.
If you've made it this far and you're a Braves fan, here's some good news: There are rumors floating about Liberty Media, the current ownership group, selling the franchise before the stadium opens. Of course, ownership transitions are notoriously deliberate, likely leaving little time to save face before 2017 if a sale does go down. Not to mention, similar rumors emerged two years ago before fizzling.
The good thing about baseball is that it's so darn hard to predict. When the Braves win the pennant out of nowhere in 2017, remember, you heard it here first. More likely, though, the Braves have set themselves up for a self-mandated stretch of losing and a bunch of empty seats in Cobb County once the new stadium shine wears off.
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