There has been a fair amount of upheaval in the Peach State over the last couple of years, what with the Braves’ dynasty coming to an end in 2006 and the passing of the general manager torch from sorcerer (John Schuerholz) to apprentice (Frank Wren). Not only that but a few months ago the ultra complex and intricate deal between Time Warner and Liberty Media was completed, which saw the Braves become part of yet another media conglomerate.
It didn’t take long for Wren to make his mark as general manager, shopping Edgar Renteria and money to the Tigers for a couple of mid-level prospects: Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez. This column is not going to rehash the merits of that particular trade—although the feeling among the mainstream and internet media is that it is a win-win for both sides, with the Braves, naturally, taking more of the risk.
What I want to discuss is what the change of guard (both GM and owner) is likely to mean for the future of the Atlanta Braves.
Ah, the dreaded “P” word. Payroll and ownership are intimately linked so we can’t discuss one without considering the other.
There has been, and continues to be, healthy speculation about the merits of Liberty as owners. The signs were promising at the start with the acquisition of Mark Teixeira, which hoisted the Braves’ payroll over $90 million, a mark that it had been slipping from in the twilight of Time Warner’s reign. However, the decisions not to negotiate with Andruw Jones and to ship Renteria off to the AL have raised concerns among the Tomahawk army that the Teixeira trade was an illusory, short-term action.
The concern is that Liberty understood the value of wins increased substantially for teams on the playoff bubble, which is exactly where the Braves were when the mega-trade was executed. As the Braves slumped, the payback didn’t hit expectations, and Liberty has decided the best route to economic salvation is to gummy up the purse strings and trade expensive vets for mid-level, good-trajectory prospects who will contribute in 2009, 2010 and beyond.
Not so fast. Although the question of payroll ceiling has never been satisfactorily answered, the decision to let Andruw go was entirely rational given his lack of production and onerous contract demands. The Renteria trade too made sense, as he was close to the peak of his value and the Braves had a dire need to restock their farm. The question is what will happen next. If Tim Hudson, for instance, gets dealt, then we’ll have a pretty big clue what the ownership’s intentions are with regard to payroll. As we also will if Tom Glavine becomes a Brave or Mark Teixeira signs a multi-year deal.
So, what will the Braves do?
The good news is that there are plenty of options. All the good ones revolve around building and maintaining a strong farm, which is the bedrock of any franchise—it is only the uber-rich teams that have enough cash to dismiss the importance of player development, and even mega-teams like the Yankees with their pitching trifecta of Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain understand that a strong youth platform is a necessary requirement to compete these days.
We’ll have a look at three possible models the Braves could follow, which we’ll term the Red Sox model, the Indians model and the Marlins model.
The Red Sox model
The Red Sox’s strategy is simple: build depth on the farm and supplement with the best free agent talent possible. If executed properly it is easy to imagine this is an effective recipe for success. The 2007 Red Sox are a perfect example of its implementation with rookies like Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz patrolling the diamond supplemented by the likes of JD Drew, Julio Lugo, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett. This approach has also been followed by the Dodgers and is where the Yankees are gravitating as well.
Can (or will) the Braves follow?
To start with, deep pockets and a leap of faith are required by the ownership. Developing a strong farm requires a combination of clever scouting and drafting (which the Braves do) but also a willingness to pay top dollar to exceed the slotting fees demanded by high ceiling talent. The Braves drafting strategy has traditionally been very regionally focused and although that has worked well in parts the system lacks the glut of superstars that are emerging from the Dodgers, Red Sox or Yankees.
And the farm is only one part. The megabucks are also needed to sign free agent talent. The goal is to play in the top end of the free agent market and sign a couple of marquee names. An even better strategy is to give up a good prospect for a young player who you can tie down to a longer deal (Josh Beckett would be a prime example).
With the demise of the superstation the Braves lack the clout of other big-market teams and don’t pay top dollar for free agents any more. In recent times the Braves have tried to flip a few youngsters for players nearing free agency (Hudson, Teixeira). Liberty Media is unlikely to open the bank vault any time soon, so the Braves probably don’t have the means to exclusively adopt the Red Sox model.
The Indians model (also known as the Twins model)
The Indians have adopted a markedly different strategy as they are hamstrung by the relative poverty bestowed on them as a smaller market team. A franchise that generates less revenue has less loot to throw around and must spend more wisely. Both the Indians and Twins are exemplars of small-market franchises that have clear strategies and invest wisely.
The approach is simple. Invest heavily in prospects; sign highly touted young talent to long term contracts that lock up arb years and the first couple of years of free-agency; then trade aggressively to fill positions or acquire more young talent; oh and if in need add a couple of inexpensive, aging free agents to pad out the team.
As a results the Indians have players like Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and C.C. Sabathia locked into long term deals at below market rates. The Coco Crisp/Andy Marte deal is a prime example of a good Indians trade. The Tribe swapped a useful, but outperforming center fielder for, at the time, one of the finest prospects in the game. Although a few fans grumbled, it didn’t hurt the franchise one jot as the Indians had the depth to cover for the loss of Crisp.
Does the Braves’ strategy fit with this?
Actually it somewhat does. Take Brian McCann, whose arb years and beyond were locked up in a long term deal—this came straight from the Indians’ box of tricks—don’t be too surprised to see Jeff Francoeur go the the same way this offseason.
The Marlins model
The Marlins live at the opposite extreme to the Red Sox or Yankees; their sole objective is to cut salary to the bone, and as good players become more expensive through arb years, trade them for prospects. (It is often possibly to secure an attractive deal because the players on the block are young and for the acquiring club relatively cheap.)
The best illustration of this technique was the Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Hanley Ramirez swap in 2005. Boston sent the highly rated (but at the time flat-lining) Ramirez to Florida for a year of Beckett and a couple of years of an aging and declining Lowell. By dumping Beckett and Lowell, the Fish saved a slug of salary and got rid of a star pitcher who would likely not re-sign with the team.
It is likely that Dontrelle Willis will go the same way soon. Miguel Cabrera would superficially appear to be in the same boat but I suspect the Marlins could hold on to him and make him the cornerstone of the franchise—much like the Cardinals did with Albert Pujols. It isn’t too difficult to see how the Marlins could contend again behind a superstar.
Would and could the Braves do something similar?
Let’s get real for a second and acknowledge that the Marlins’ approach is unique and unlikely to be imitated. Saying that, the Renteria trade has all the hallmarks of the Marlins model. Don’t be too surprised if the Braves flip a few other players (Tim Hudson possibly) in a similar manner.
Back to the Braves
Obviously every team adopts a different approach, and rarely do teams follow the same model. If you’ve read the above you’ll realize that the Braves have adopted facets of all three models. There are other models too that we didn’t consider: e.g., the Cubs approach where you sign as many good and bad free agents as you can. So what is the likely Braves strategy for the Frank Wren era?
First, the Braves will double-down on prospects. The Teixeira trade ripped the heart out of Atlanta’s farm and the Renteria deal was an attempt to partly repair the damage. I wouldn’t be too surprised if a couple more players get traded if some good prospects are available. One player who could be dealt and whose name hasn’t been bandied around much is Teixeira himself. He is still an exceptionally valuable trading chip and if the Braves fail to lock him up expect him to be on the block.
If that happens the Braves could move wholesale to the Marlins model in the short-term, effectively sacrificing the 2008 season and build for 2010+. Chipper Jones and John Smoltz could leave and the Braves would focus on building a core of youth.
However, I suspect that the Braves will re-up Teixeira to a four-year deal, in which case we’re likely to see a win sooner mentality. Even under this scenario one can envisage that the Braves will sacrifice their chances in 2008 to build a more robust challenge in 2009 and beyond. On the other hand, if the Braves let Teixeira play out 2008 in Atlanta then I’d expect they’d aggressively add talent in an attempt to see success immediately.
Longer term Frank Wren will probably adopt something similar to the Indians model. The Braves play in a bigger market and have more money than the Indians, which would allow them to acquire a bit more top talent. But the ethos is a strong fit with the organisation. The only thing that remains to be seen is how well they execute. If history is a guide then probably fairly well!