The Braves won 96 games last season, 94 in 2012, more than 90 in three of the last four seasons. Cooperstown will be theirs come July, with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox going into the Hall of Fame, and may see John Smoltz and John Schuerholz inducted soon thereafter.
But the Braves also are, at best, a middle class team bound to a $90M payroll because of one of the worst local television rights deals in the game, which lands them in the bottom ten in such revenues; long way from when Andy Messersmith wore Channel 17 on his uniform.
Thus they have to mostly develop their own talent, which they have done. Thus Tuesday was an important day, locking up Jason Heyward to a two year, $13.3M deal that will take him to free agency at the end of 2015, and are finalizing details on a deal with Freddie Freeman on an eight year, $135M deal. As a very good, young pitching staff further develops, they have a bridge to Lucas Sims and their next group of young arms before having to make a decision on Heyward as he hits the market at 26.
The free agent market system right now is under fire because some players misread their values and remain unsigned. Blasting MLB, as one headline proclaimed, is silly, because the draft choice compensation tied to free agents tendered $14M qualifying offers was not imposed by the Commissioner’s Office, it was bargained with the Players Association. Now, will it get altered before the next agreement? Of course. Or agents could present the union with ideas about alternatives and tradeoffs to MLB to change the system.
Clubs may overrate the value of draft choices right now, but Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano were not impeded. When the $14M qualifying offers went out, many voices raised questions about whether or not Kendrys Morales, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew and Ubaldo Jimenez could do better on the open market than to take the $14M and use it as a pillow contract, as Adrian Beltre did so successfully. Toronto is in on Santana, but at nowhere near the years and dollars he imagined.
When hyperbole about the “integrity of the game” is raised, of far more importance to the real integrity is finding ways to give small market teams better access to amateur talent, including internationally; they cannot compete in the free agent world, and must have a warehouse of players with less than six years’ experience. The system rewards a top five market like Houston for losing, and punishes the Rays, Indians and Athletics for being highly competent small markets.
Jimenez is 42-52 the last four seasons; had he taken the $14M and put up a WAR of 3.0, he might have earned enough to make it $60M over four years. Drew is a very good player, but he hasn’t played 125 games since 2000. Morales, who was a center fielder/closer in Cuba, has played only 343 games at first base in the majors, had a -3 defensive runs saved total at the position in 2012-2013, and was considered a DH. When the Royals considered trading Billy Butler and signing Morales, it was to try to get a good young starting pitcher for Butler and have Morales as the DH, but there was no pitcher available for a DH, albeit one of the best.
Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington made it clear a month ago that Xander Bogaerts is going to be Boston’s shortstop; he wants Drew back, could use his talent in a number of roles, but fielding professor Brian Butterfield has already laid out a number of creative footwork drills for Bogaerts at short and insists Will Middlebrooks “will turn out to be a good defensive third baseman.” Butterfield has studied overhead video of Middlebrooks to find ways of quickening his first step and breaks on balls off the bat. And Boston needs his righthanded corner power, which he showed when he made adjustments after being recalled from Pawtucket, improving his OBP by 70 points and beginning to drive balls to center and right center.
One report had Drew going back to Oakland. “Not a chance in the world,” said Billy Beane. “Jed Lowrie is our shortstop. With Addison Russell on the way. We like Eric Sogard and Nick Punto at second. The Drew thing makes no sense.” Russell will be making $50-0,000 in 2015.
Scott Boras has been an opponent of the system for more than year, and was critical of the late Michael Weiner. He is invested in getting Drew to Boston on a three year deal with an opt-out that would clear the way for Deven Marrero, another client. He’s usually won big on these gambles, but, right now, there doesn’t appear to a guardian angel, as there was for Kyle Lohse.
On a limited payroll, constantly reminded of the contracts of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, the Braves have made Freeman a face of the franchise, and begun a process with Heyward to find a fair market value when he hits the market, healthy, after 2015. Sometimes teams win in the market, sometimes they lose. Sometimes agents and players win and win big, sometimes they miscalculate.
The system is what it is, agreed upon by players and owners, and if either side wants to change it between now and next November, they can prepare a list of tradeoffs, while owners figure a way to better reward the small markets for competency before Tampa, Cleveland and Oakland are down below the waterline.