Is Braves' Locked Up Young Core Good Enough for Long Run of N.L. Dominance?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 20, 2014

Andrelton Simmons is the latest young Brave to get a long-term extension.
Andrelton Simmons is the latest young Brave to get a long-term extension.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves have made the postseason in three of the last four years, and their lowest win total in that span was 89 in 2011. In short, they're doing alright.

But the Braves clearly aren't satisfied. They clearly mean to once again be what they were in the 1990s and 2000s: a team that...just...never...goes...away.

If that's what the Braves want, let's all stand up and applaud them for going about it the right way.

It's been a busy month for Atlanta's front office. First, Freddie Freeman was extended for eight years at $135 million. Then Julio Teheran was extended for six years at $32.4 million, with an option for a seventh year. Then it was Craig Kimbrel's turn, who got four years at $42 million with an option for a fifth year.

And now Braves general manager Frank Wren has added one more extension to the pile. As reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons has been extended for seven years and $58 million:

Now, understanding what a big deal these extensions are requires understanding a little something about the Braves.

By FanGraphs' reckoning, Atlanta got more WAR from position players aged 25 or younger in 2013 than any other team in MLB. And while the Chicago White Sox got more fWAR from 25 or younger pitchers, Braves youngsters accumulated more RA9-WAR. That means that when it came to actually preventing runs, Atlanta's young pitchers were better than anyone else's.

What the Braves have, therefore, is a classic case of "Got a good thing going here." And that speaks to the beauty of the four extensions they've handed out. What they've done is ensure that the good thing they have going will keep going for quite a while.

Jun 30, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) celebrates a three run home run with shortstop Andrelton Simmons (19) in the third inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Freeman and Simmons were Atlanta's two best position players in 2013, with Freeman racking up a 4.8 fWAR and Simmons racking up a 4.7 fWAR. By RA9-WAR, Mike Minor only beat Teheran out by 0.1 WAR for the honor of being Atlanta's best pitcher. Kimbrel's 3.2 RA9-WAR, meanwhile, put him nearly at Kris Medlen's level despite pitching 130 fewer innings.

One wants to use the phrase "Core Four," and it is indeed appropriate in this case. Freeman, Simmons, Teheran and Kimbrel are mighty good and mighty young, as only Kimbrel will be past his age-25 season when 2014 boots up. Freeman and Simmons will be headed for their age-24 seasons. Teheran is only headed to his age-23 season.

Even better is that Kimbrel is also the only one of the four who doesn't have upside left to untap. There's not much he can do to improve on the 1.48 ERA and 42.9 K% he's racked up in the last three seasons, but it's absolutely possible that we haven't yet seen the best of Freeman, Simmons and Teheran.

Freeman's situation is one that I wrote about at length after he signed his contract extension. He's made himself into an outstanding player by getting better defensively at first base and by showing off a good eye and an ability to make tons of solid contact at the plate.

But while I'm not totally sold on the idea, I will grant that the peak of Freeman's power potential might still be out there somewhere. He has yet to hit more than 23 homers in a season. If he starts hitting 30 homers every year while also doing the other things he's already doing, he'll be a superstar-caliber (i.e. 5-6 WAR) player.

As for Simmons, we know that he can do stuff like this on defense:

These were all parts of a 2013 campaign that saw Simmons rack up a 24.6 UZR and an astonishing 41 Defensive Runs Saved. No other shortstop in MLB had more than 12 Defensive Runs Saved. 

It's good enough that Simmons is the elite defensive shortstop in MLB, as elite defense at that position is good enough to boost a player's WAR all on its own. You can therefore only imagine how good Simmons is going to be if more and more experience helps him tighten up his approach. If he becomes a more reliable hitter than the one who only had a .248 average and .296 OBP in 2013, watch out.

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 29: Julio Teheran #49 of the Atlanta Braves pitches in the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field on September 29, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Regarding Teheran, when I went looking at his breakout season in 2013 more closely, I came away thinking that he's only scratched the surface. If he begins to mix in his sinker more often and rediscovers his trust in his changeup against lefties, he could turn into one of the National League's elite starters.

In Kimbrel, the Braves have an ultra-rare reliever, who could keep giving them multi-WAR seasons year after year, locked up through 2018. Even more scary is that Freeman, Simmons and Teheran all have five-WAR potential and are all locked up through at least 2020.

And they may not be done yet. The Braves will be moving into a new stadium in 2017, and Wren told Tracy Ringolsby of"We do not envision going into a new ballpark without our core in place."

That may mean Minor and Heyward. At the least, it would seem to mean Heyward. The Braves only signed the right fielder to a two-year contract extension earlier this month, but Ringolsby wrote this: "The expectation is that after next season, the Heyward deal can be expanded so that he, too, will be locked up at least through the first year in the new ballpark."

If the Braves end up extending Heyward for as long as they've extended Freeman, Simmons and Teheran, they're going to have four players with both talent and youth locked up for the long haul. 

And that's a scary notion for the rest of the National League, because the Braves are secure enough in having just as many as three talented youngsters locked up through 2020. 

That's not exactly normal, as a stroll through other National League teams' commitments on Cot's Baseball Contracts revealed:

National Leaguers Locked Up Through 2020
TeamThrough 2020Player(s)
Cubs3Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler
Reds2Homer Bailey, Joey Votto
Brewers1Ryan Braun
Mets1David Wright
Nationals1Ryan Zimmerman
Rockies1Troy Tulowitzki
Dodgers1Clayton Kershaw
Giants1Buster Posey
Cot's Baseball Contracts

The only other team in the Senior Circuit with three players locked up through 2020 is the Cubs, and their three guys aren't as good as the Braves' three guys. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are, at best, lesser stars. Jorge Soler hasn't yet made it to the big leagues.

There is plenty of young talent elsewhere around the National League, to be sure. But no other team in the league got as much production from its young talent as the Braves did in 2013, and nobody has as much young talent locked up for as long as they do either. 

So keep an eye on these Braves. They've had themselves a good run in the last couple years. Thanks to their wheeling and dealing, that run should keep on going.

Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.

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