In 1999, when the Atlanta Braves made the World Series (only to lose in six games to the New York Yankees), they boasted the third-highest payroll in all of baseball, trailing only the Yankees and the Texas Rangers.
In 2003, the Braves again had the third-highest payroll, at more than $106 million.
Since that season—and since Liberty Media bought the franchise in May of 2007—Atlanta's payroll has declined steadily.
2011 saw the Braves rank 15th out of 30 teams in payroll at $87 million.
To put that in perspective, the cost of a barrel of oil in September of 2003: $30. In 2011? More than $100.
Some teams, like the Tampa Bay Rays—a smaller-market team than the Braves, with the 2nd-lowest payroll in baseball—have adjusted. Most, however, are struggling with the transition from making personnel moves based on the advice of old-school scouts to making those same moves after evaluating more advanced numbers.
A big payroll means that a team can afford to make mistakes, because they generally can throw money at the problem and see it disappear.
A reduced payroll means that a team cannot afford to make mistakes, because one bad contract or one weak draft can have major implications.
In recent years, the Braves have found some nice pieces and a few elite young players. Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, and Martin Prado grew up in the Atlanta system and will provide a solid nucleus in the coming years.
But questions remain.
Who will play third base full-time after Chipper retires? Martin Prado? In that case, who do the Braves have in the pipeline to play left field?
Is Tyler Pastornicky really the answer at shortstop? For now, I'll trust the Braves' confidence in him, but the Yunel Escobar deal in 2010, which looks more and more like a mistake every day, means Atlanta is in a bit of a quandary at the position. (Yes, I know, Andrelton Simmons is likely the long-term solution, but he's never played above Single-A.)
If the Braves learned anything from the deal Juan Pierre received from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 (4 years, $44 million), they will be cautious in giving speedy center fielder Michael Bourn, a Scott Boras client, an expensive deal. Speed does not age well, and Bourn will turn 30 in December of this year. There's a saying that 'Speed Never Slumps,' which holds true as long as the speed can reach base, and Bourn's career OBP is .336.
Atlanta always has been a pitching-rich organization, and they still are today. Teheran, Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino all have promising futures, and for the proponents of using one of the three as trade bait for a big bat, I give you this: can the Braves afford to take on the salary that will come with a potent hitter?
With the knowledge that the franchise ranked 15th in attendance in 2011, and with no new cash-cow stadium on the horizon, the Braves will have to adjust to working with a smaller payroll.
I don't want to come across as pessimistic about what has typically been a well-run organization, because I'm not. The Braves are set up well at many spots for the next five years.
But they will need to improve the position player depth in the system through more astute drafting and use of the international free agent market.
Philadelphia and Miami can afford to cover up flaws with money. The Braves simply can't anymore.
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