The Atlanta Braves—a mid-market team on the verge of becoming a large-market team with a new ballpark—spent the winter locking up young, ascending stars. Along the path to securing future cost certainty, the Braves inadvertently changed the business structure of large-market foes.
For years, large-market teams have used deep pockets to fill holes—replace aging veterans and re-shape short-term goals.
That strategy—thanks to teams like the Braves using John Hart's model for sustained success, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com—is becoming less and less feasible as front-office minds survey the landscape of the league and lock up young players years before free agency.
In big markets, the edict is now simple: adapt or perish.
Unlike in the past, ready-made, franchise-changing options are becoming less and less prevalent on the open market. Even when very good players arrive, the cost of business is so high because value becomes inflated.
In order to survive, big-market teams must adopt the strategy of locking up their own young stars, delivering cost certainty and restoring order to the idea of payroll advantage.
Last year, according to CBS Sports, the 10 largest payrolls in baseball belonged to the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago White Sox, Tornoto Blue Jays and St. Louis Cardinals.
Clearly, a list like that is fluid. In 2014, after spending during the winter, the Texas Rangers will likely supplant one of last year's big spenders. Regardless of which teams are the top spenders in a given season, their advantage has been minimized because of the rush to lock up potential stars before free agency.
Over the last two years, the following players have eschewed free agency for lucrative, long-term deals: Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel, Homer Bailey, Freddie Freeman, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, David Wright and Brett Gardner.
That group ranges from some of the best in the game to solid contributors, yet the same characteristic accompanied the entire group: A trip to the open market never commenced.
To be fair, large-market teams are generally spending to win—that means spending on veteran, high-priced talent. Often, teams like the Dodgers, Yankees and Phillies will trade away young prospects before they have a chance to make an impact and become potential extension candidates.
Yet, using the top-ten payrolls from 2013, a theme emerges: Each team has extension candidates in the organization.
|Extension-Worthy Stars: Large-Market Candidates|
|Red Sox||$150,655,500||Xander Bogaerts|
|White Sox||$119,073,277||Adam Eaton|
|Blue Jays||$117,527,800||Brett Lawrie|
|CBS Sports/Cot's Baseball Contracts|
The game is changing one extension at a time. This change isn't new but rather a theory used by the Braves this winter to secure future success.
In fact, the future payroll in New York may have played a large role in why the Braves are so willing to award Freddie Freeman a $135 million deal before his age-24 season. As Joel Sherman pointed out in the New York Post, Freeman was originally set to hit the open market at the conclusion of the 2016 season.
Coincidentally, Mark Teixeira's $180 million deal expires after the 2016 season. The Yankees, always in need of left-handed power, would have likely outbid Atlanta for his services.
For teams like the Yankees, Freeman is another name to erase from future free-agent classes. The following chart shows potential free agents over the next three years.
|Future Free-Agent Classes|
|Russell Martin||Chris Davis||Jason Castro|
|J.J. Hardy||Ian Desmond||Wilson Ramos|
|Billy Butler||Miguel Cabrera||Martin Prado|
|Hanley Ramirez||Justin Upton||Giancarlo Stanton|
|Chase Headley||Jason Heyward||Carlos Gomez|
|Pablo Sandoval||Yoenis Cespedes||Jay Bruce|
|Colby Rasmus||David Price||Alex Gordon|
|Max Scherzer||Mat Latos||Stephen Strasburg|
|James Shields||Jordan Zimmermann||Brandon Beachy|
|Jon Lester||Jeff Samardzija||Andrew Cashner|
|Jim Johnson||Aroldis Chapman||Greg Holland|
|Cot's Baseball Contracts|
The list isn't great now, but will likely worsen as the years go on. Extensions will be handed out, further deflating the market and raising the prices for those who remain.
Furthermore, escalating arbitration costs were once a major detriment to small-market teams. When a player entered his third season, the cost-to-production ratio would begin to shift, forcing teams to auction off their best players in trades.
Now, with forward-thinking front-office executives, that's becoming less and less likely to happen.
For the big-market team desperate to win, outside alternatives are becoming impossible to find at a fair price. Forget about an advantage, a case can be made that the business models in New York, Philadelphia and Boston are detrimental to winning.
As salaries continue to rise, the game will continue to change and force owners into finding executives capable of unearthing advantages to win and save money.
For large-market teams looking to restore balance and reclaim an advantage, only one alternative seems feasible: grow young stars, lock them up to reasonable deals and have even more capital to spend on the rare free-agent gem.
With Mike Trout (potentially) on the market after the 2017 season, the race is on for baseball's biggest teams to smarten up and save pennies for a run at the increasingly rare free agent worth big years and even bigger dollars.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com 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.