The Atlanta Braves have the 16th-highest payroll in baseball at $82.41 million. Although they fall close to the median MLB team payroll, they are actually about $13 million below the league average payroll of $95.51. Liberty Media pays roughly $114 million less to field their team than the Steinbrenner family, who have a payroll just a hair under $196 million (as usual, the highest in baseball).
But the Braves have been remarkably successful at turning their modest payroll into victories on the field. At 62-46, only the Nationals and the Reds have won more games with less money than the Braves. They have paid just $1.32 million per win in 2012 (the Reds' $1.15 million per win is the best in baseball).
Comparatively, the Phillies—who currently sit 13 games behind the Braves in the NL East—were paying $3.54 million per win, the most in baseball, before their recent fire sale cleared a large chunk of payroll. The once-mighty Phils now have the second-highest payroll in baseball, one of only three teams in the top 10 MLB payrolls to have a losing record (the others? Miami and Milwaukee).
The major reason for the Braves' ability to get a lot for a little, as you will see, is their crop of young talent that has given the team a huge boost for a relatively modest paycheck. The Braves will have some tough decisions to make next year as some of their biggest contributors become arbitration eligible and will need to be paid according to their contributions on the field.
For now, however, there's nothing to do but enjoy the arms and bats that the Braves are getting on the cheap in 2012. Read on to find out the five most underpaid members of the 2012 Atlanta Braves.
Player stats are courtesy of Fangraphs.
Kris Medlen has been stellar for the Braves this year, pitching effectively in both relief and starting roles. Through 59.1 innings, the 26-year-old has compiled a 2.43 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, making him the second most valuable reliever at the Braves' disposal.
His recent return to a starting role has been promising, but he has already contributed significantly as a reliever—his absence was a major reason for the bullpen meltdown last September, and his presence thus far has allowed Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty to take lesser loads than the ones they shouldered last year.
Despite the value he adds on the field, Medlen is making only $490,000 this year. To measure player performance versus their cost, baseballplayersalaries.com uses a stat called "team cost vs. performance score" which is calculated by dividing a player's percent of team WAR by their percent of total team payroll.
Medlen has a score of 8.7, the fifth highest on the Braves. For comparison, the Angels' Ernesto Frieri—who was an American League All-Star this year—has a score of 9.7.
Medlen becomes arbitration-eligible next year and looks to face a sizable pay raise. If he continues to contribute as he has been this year, the Braves will not be able to retain their star reliever for less than a couple million dollars.
Freddie Freeman has been a major offensive asset for the Braves since his major league debut in 2011, hitting .280/.349/.466 thus far.
Although he is young, Freeman has been very consistent, nearly matching his 2011 line (.282/.346/.448) exactly. Freeman slugged 21 homers as a rookie and is currently on pace to hit 20 in 2012.
Freeman's tools as a player are well-known, as he has been expected to contribute at a major league level for several years now. He is living up to expectations and providing the Braves with a valuable bat at first base.
For all his contributions, Freeman will earn only $535,000 this year. It's certainly an upgrade over the $414,000 that he made in his rookie season, but still a considerable steal for the Braves, given that they are paying Dan Uggla $13 million this year to hit .210 and slug .364.
Freeman has a team cost vs. performance score of 11.3, on par with players like Bryce Harper (12) and Allen Craig (10.4).
Freeman enters arbitration in the offseason and figures to sign a contract somewhere in the area of $3-$5 million, as befits his youth and potent bat.
It's no secret that Craig Kimbrel has been a dominant force for Atlanta, continuing what he started in his rookie season (2.10 ERA, 46 saves). Kimbrel's numbers speak for themselves: .67 WHIP, 1.29 ERA, 1.01 FIP and an insane 15.64 K/9 (second-highest among active MLB relievers with more than 40 innings).
Going by WAR (per Fangraphs), Kimbrel's 2.3 actually makes him the most valuable pitcher on the Braves and the second most valuable reliever in baseball (behind Aroldis Chapman). Kimbrel joins a long line of dominant Braves closers, continuing the tradition of Mark Wohlers, John Smoltz and Billy Wagner to give opponents fits in the ninth inning. Still only 24, the 2011 rookie of the year has immense potential and has already contributed significantly to the Braves' success.
Kimbrel may be blowing away National League batters better than anyone else this season, but he certainly is not getting paid like his elite closing counterparts such as Jonathan Papelbon ($11 million). Kimbrel rakes in just $590,000, meaning the Braves have paid only $14,000 for each of the dominant innings Kimbrel has tossed this year. Definitely an upgrade over the $419,000 he earned for breaking the record for saves by a rookie in 2011 (a raise that befit the NL Rookie of the Year), but significantly lower than the price the Braves will need to pay to retain him when he becomes arbitration eligible this fall.
He has been as dominant as any reliever in baseball since Opening Day 2011, and it won't be long until he is paid like it. For now, the Braves just hope he can keep it rolling and avoid a September meltdown like last year.
Losing Brandon Beachy to injury this season was a major blow for the Braves, who seemed to have found an ace for a rotation with no true anchor. His numbers were definitely due for regression (a .200 BABIP is hardly sustainable), but the 81 innings he gave the Braves this year were some of the best pitched by anyone in the majors. Braves fans can only hope that he undergoes a successful surgery and comes back strong next year, picking up where he left off.
Although the Braves have picked up a pitcher or two to fill the void left by their young breakout star, his presence heading into September would give the Braves—and their fans—a little more optimism for their October chances.
Beachy is being paid only $495,000 this year, which is obviously a steal for the value added by the 25-year-old would-be ace. Beachy's team cost vs. performance score is 13.7, on par with pitchers such as Ross Detwiler (13) and James McDonald (10.5). Like his young teammates, Beachy becomes arbitration eligible this fall.
Although the Braves are loaded with young pitching talent, Beachy is a must-sign pitcher whose price tag will likely be a bargain given the uncertainty surrounding his injury. His potential is tremendous, as we've already seen he is capable of dominating at a major league level.
No surprise here—Jason Heyward has been stellar in his third year in a Braves uniform. Heyward—the "J-Hey Kid"—has rebounded from a disappointing sophomore campaign that led many to sour on his potential.
He has returned to his rookie season numbers, however, putting up a line of .272/.348/.479 and heading toward career highs in runs, RBI, home runs and stolen bases. He has been the second most valuable bat in the Braves lineup, contributing 4.4 WAR (per Fangraphs)—comparable to Yadier Molina (4.5) and Melky Cabrera (4.6).
It is also important to remember that Heyward, despite his size (6'5", 240 lbs.), is still only 22 years old and has a bright future ahead of him.
The Braves are getting away with paying Heyward only $565,000, making him one of the best values for cost of any player in baseball. His team cost vs. performance score is 22.7, one of the highest in the MLB.
Of all the Braves' young stars, Heyward is easily the most important for their future. His ceiling is sky high, and it is clear that the Braves consider him the face of the future in Atlanta. They should—and will—pay Heyward accordingly this fall when he enters arbitration. This young future superstar has plenty of WAR left to rack up in Atlanta before his playing days are done.