Can the Atlanta Braves Afford to Keep Their Young Core Together?

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Can the Atlanta Braves Afford to Keep Their Young Core Together?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For the Atlanta Braves, a core of young, ascending talent is a blessing. But it's also a curse for long-term payroll planning.

When the organization re-signed first baseman Freddie Freeman to an eight-year, $135 million deal, the cornerstone of the future was secured. Yet, without talent around him, Freeman's salary, production and prime will be wasted in Atlanta.

Luckily for the Braves, the supporting cast is already in tow. The quintet of Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Mike Minor, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran form the core of a winning team around Freeman in 2014 and beyond.

Of course, if all five of Freeman's gifted teammates follow his path to riches, difficult decisions will ensue within Atlanta's front office. After the Freeman signing was announced, Braves general manager Frank Wren portrayed the biggest deal in franchise history as one step in a detailed plan, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.

"That's our expectation, or we wouldn't have done [the Freeman deal]," Wren said. "If we felt this would put us in a bind to be competitive, we would not have done it. We feel like the revenues will allow our payroll to grow significantly."

Much like in any business, revenue is the key to re-investment. For the Braves to keep its young core together, Wren needs to be correct. When the Braves announced a plan to move into a new stadium—less than 20 years after the completion of Turner Field—heads turned. Yet, when taking a look at Atlanta's payroll figures over the last 10 years, a picture of a mid-market franchise emerges. 

Atlanta Braves Year-By-Year Payroll
Year Braves Opening Day Payroll
2004 $ 90,182,500
2005 $ 86,457,302
2006 $ 90,156,876
2007 $ 87,290,833
2008 $102,365,683
2009 $ 96,726,166
2010 $ 83,890,334
2011 $ 91,044,524
2012 $ 93,529,667
2013 $ 90,039,583

Cot's Baseball Contracts

During the announcement of the stadium project at the recent general managers' meetings, Ron Starner, a writer for Site Selection Magazine in Peachtree Corners, Ga., envisioned Atlanta's payroll increasing with the new park. Per Jerry Crasnick's column for ESPN:

"The signal I take from this is that the Braves want to be a more competitive ballclub in Major League Baseball," said Starner. "They're never going to compete with the Yankees in terms of payroll, but they needed a stadium deal in a new location to maximize their revenues. The revenues were always going to be limited if they had chosen to remain at Turner Field."

"Limited" may be putting it lightly.  

Over the last decade, Atlanta's payroll hasn't exceeded $103 million in any year. By 2017, when the Braves enter the new Cobb County, GA., stadium, Freddie Freeman is slated to make over $20 million. 

Unless something changes dramatically within Atlanta's business model, the idea of keeping its six young stars together throughout their respective primes is a ridiculous notion.

When studying the burgeoning talents of Heyward, Kimbrel, Simmons, Minor and Teheran, it's not hard to imagine a time where all five are National League All-Stars. The trajectory of young players isn't often linear and injury or attrition could slow down their respective paths. Yet, the talent is there for consistent excellence.

For Frank Wren and Atlanta's front office, that thought is exciting. It's also potentially worrisome.

Heyward, signed to a two-year, $13.3 million deal, will hit free agency after the 2015 season. When he hits the open market, it's not hard to imagine a team willing to offer him a deal in excess of $150 million. 

Why? Jacoby Ellsbury garnered a seven-year, $153 million deal from the New York Yankees this offseason. Part of the reason: A .350 career on-base percentage. Heading into the 2014 season, Heyward's career OBPtwo years before free agency arrivesis .352.

Craig Kimbrel is on the path to becoming the richest closer in baseball history. When his arbitration case is decided, the 25-year-old closer may earn $9 million in his first year at the negotiating table. As of now, the arbitration record for a closer is the $12 million secured by Jonathan Papelbon in his third year of arbitration.

Kimbrel, two years ahead of that record pace, will likely surpass Papelbon's four-year, $52 million free-agent contract. By 2017, estimating a yearly salary of $17 million for Kimbrel isn't difficult. 

Since the 2012 All-Star break, Mike Minor has pitched 286 innings, posted a 2.96 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 4.00 SO/BB and 7.8 K/9. Those numbers put him in select company among starting pitchers in the sport, specifically when it comes to ERA. In 2013, only 13 starters pitched to an ERA lower. 

By 2017, Minor will be in his final year before free agency, barring a long-term extension. Finding compensating for future arbitration-eligible pitchers is difficult, but after earning $3.85 million as a super-two player this winter, future salaries could skyrocket for the 26-year-old lefty.

Last year, during his age-22 season, Julio Teheran posted a 3.78 SO/BB rate. That feat has been been matched by only five other pitchers in the history of the sport. Their names: Walter Johnson, Bert Blyleven, Mark Prior, Madison Bumgarner and Mat Latos.

If Teheran continues on this path and becomes a top-of-the rotation arm, the Braves would be wise to buyout his arbitration years and early free-agent trips. If Frank Wren looks at that list, Madison Bumgarner's contract extension in San Francisco will stand out. By 2017, Teheran will be in arbitration for the second time. Bumgarner's extension netted him $6.75 million at the same juncture.

Andrelton Simmons' future earnings are hard to predict, but this much is clear: If his value progresses over the next few years, the slick-fielding shortstop could break the bank in arbitration by 2017. Last year, Simmons was worth 6.7 bWAR during his age-23 season. In the history of baseball, only three shortstopsCal Ripken, Arky Vaughan and Joe Cronin—have exceeded that value at the same age. 

Three notable shortstops that ranked below Simmons: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jose Reyes. 

When long-term contracts arrived for those young stars, Reyes' six-year, $106 million deal was by far the least lucrative among the trio of up-the-middle stars.

As of this moment, the Braves have $37.9 million committed to their 2017 payroll, per Cot's Baseball Contracts.

Clearly, the team will need to take more than just B.J. Upton and Freddie Freeman into the new stadium. In order to keep together an outstanding young core, at least another $60-80 million will need to be allotted just for the young pieces on the roster. 

Will the Braves be able to keep their entire core together?

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When factoring in the needs for the rest of the roster—including 60 percent of a rotation and four everyday position players—the Braves likely need to move toward a $140 million payroll to keep the core happy and in Atlanta.

Heading into the 2014 season, the Braves are a good team with a bright future. Eventually, major decisions will have to come and the business model will be significantly altered.

If it's not, stars like Craig Kimbrel and Jason Heyward won't accompany Freddie Freeman into the next chapter of Braves baseball.

Agree? Disagree?

Comment, follow me on Twitter or "like" my Facebook page to talk about all things baseball. 

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.

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