In November 2012, we witnessed the Atlanta Braves do something they have shied away from for a while. They signed outfielder B.J. Upton to a five-year deal worth $75.25 million. The sum of the deal put Upton in special company. He joined Manny Ramirez and Carlos Beltran as the only outfielders 28 years old and younger to sign their name to a deal worth $75 million or more on Opening Day.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, B.J. Upton would fall flat on his face with a .184 batting average and -0.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 126 games.
The B.J. Upton signing could have ramifications for the Braves as they inch closer to the impending free agency of Justin Upton, Kris Medlen, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Beachy.
The aforementioned names make up the bulk of the World Series-contending Braves core.
National League Most Valuable Player talk focused on Justin Upton for the first couple months of 2013. While he would slow down after an electrifying start in Atlanta, the younger half of the brothers Upton will turn 27 in August. He is also set to enter free agency following two more seasons with the Braves.
Medlen has won 25 games over the span of the last two seasons. A reliable arm in the rotation, Medlen isn't known for striking out batters. Similar to a poor man's Greg Maddux, he works the plate and gets batters out via their contact. The right-handed pitcher will be 28 for the 2014 season and, like Justin Upton, a free agent in 2016.
Another star in Atlanta is set to enter free agency in 2016. Outfielder Jason Heyward will turn 25 in August. While hype has exacerbated his production, Heyward has become one of the best sluggers in the NL. It appears that he won't necessarily hit for average but after freak injuries derailed his 2013 season, one positive is Heyward did improve on his walk and strikeout rates.
Set to be 25 years old in September, first baseman Freddie Freeman surged to being considered among the best power hitters in all of Major League Baseball. He has hit 46 home runs over the course of the last two seasons while boosting his average to .319 a year ago. Freeman leads the list of Braves set to hit free agency after the next three seasons.
Over the last three seasons, no closer has been as dynamic as Craig Kimbrel. During the same span, his fastball velocity has only increased from 96.2 to 96.9. He has averaged 46 saves annually since getting the nod as Atlanta's closer in 2011. Due to turn 26 in May, one can see why it's imperative for the Braves to lock up Kimbrel prior to his free agency year of 2017.
The last of the bunch, Brandon Beachy, is a major question mark. From June 2012 through July 2013, Beachy worked in the training facility while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The righty has plenty of potential but has yet to pitch more than 81 innings in a single MLB season. Akin to Freeman and Kimbrel, Beachy's arbitration eligibility ends after 2016.
According to FanGraphs, the aforementioned six players combined for a 16.3 WAR. It isn't unreasonable to suggest an increase in their cumulative WAR moving forward either. After all, it seems as if each player is entering his prime.
The situation isn't all bad for Atlanta. Twenty-nine other MLB clubs would love to be in the conundrum Atlanta currently is in. Their scouting and development system has done one of the better jobs in baseball over the course of the last six or seven years. However, the problem Atlanta faces is keeping this core intact.
B.J. Upton's deal isn't likely to keep the Braves apprehensive from committing long-term to each of these aforesaid players. After all, the horrid decline of second baseman Dan Uggla and his $13 million annual contract didn't keep the Braves from throwing bags of money at the older Upton.
The problem for Atlanta will be finding enough loot to keep this core intact.
Free agency in 2016 and 2017 may appear light years away. It really isn't though. Organizations are more aggressive in securing their keystone players much earlier in their pre-arbitration and arbitration years.
For example, the Chicago Cubs signed first baseman Anthony Rizzo to a seven-year, $41 million contract extension last May. Compared to Freeman, Rizzo has less MLB service time and has yet to produce on a level parallel to the Braves first baseman. Yet, his long-term outlook with Chicago is guaranteed. Additionally, the Cubs saved money compared to what they would have had to spend had they played the waiting game. The Cubs are apparently ahead of the curve in understanding why committing to a long-term contract as soon as possible is beneficial to the team.
It would behoove Atlanta to buy out the remaining arbitration years for the players listed. On top of that, they should pay them accordingly for their first two to three seasons of free agency. This would come at a discount for Atlanta and secure team control over their core as they push to make multiple World Series runs through 2018.
The longer the Braves remain stuck in neutral, the less incentive Jason Heyward and Co. will have to sign long-term deals as they creep closer to free agency. While some of the players could decide to do so, it is unlikely the entire core remains intact.
It is feasible that Justin Upton, Heyward and Freeman would command contracts worth more than $100 million when they hit free agency. However, if the Braves stop sitting on their hands, they would likely be able to retain each of them for nearly half to three quarters of that sum. Beachy is in an awkward position to say the least. However, Medlen and Kimbrel could both see deals worth at least $50 million should they hit free agency.
Atlanta would do itself a favor by locking these players up before they get another year closer to free agency. By not doing so, they are playing with fire. After all, organizations such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees will price them out of the market on players they developed.
UPDATE: Jason Heyward and Atlanta Braves reach two-year deal
Per ESPN at 11:18 EST, the Atlanta Braves and Jason Heyward agreed to a two-year deal. This deal will buy out Heyward's remaining years of arbitration, in effect making him a free agent in 2016. While terms of the new deal have not been disclosed yet, it is a discouraging sign that the Braves are willing to contend with other teams for the right to sign Heyward in two seasons. They may end up pricing themselves out of the market for the outfielder.