Are the NL East Champion Braves Playing It Too Safely This Offseason?

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IJanuary 20, 2014

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 22: The Atlanta Braves celebrate their division championship on September 22, 2013 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Atlanta Braves defeated the Chicago Cubs 5-2 to clinch the National League East Championship.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

After a 96-win season that included the NL East crown and the best home record (56-25) in baseball, the Atlanta Braves should be exhausting all resources in pursuit of a World Series run this year. 

With spring training rapidly approaching, that's far from the case. As the Braves front office plays it safe this offseason, fans and media members have watched as other contenders have made significant moves to bolster their rosters. Unfortunately for this organization, the winter plight isn't a choice, but rather a fact of life for a team with financial constraints. 

When the Los Angeles Dodgers awarded Clayton Kershaw a seven-year, $215 million deal last week, it meant that the best pitcher in Major League Baseball would be making just over $30 million per year. Contrast that with the entire Braves roster, before arbitration filing began, coming in at just over $55 million, per Cot's Baseball Contracts.

The difference should be eye-opening for anyone that follows the Braves organization. When Jonah Keri of Grantland detailed what Kershaw's deal means for Major League Baseball, specifically referencing teams with budgets constraints, he might as well have been staring at Turner Field. Per Keri's column:

The TV money flowing into the game is, in many ways, a boon to all, with the new national deal adding $26 million to every team’s top line in 2014. Unfortunately, the league failed to anticipate the massive gulf that would develop between the have and have-not teams once the wealthiest clubs signed their new local deals.

Ah, television money. If revenue sharing and national media money is intended to be the great equalizer in the sport, local television revenue is now what separates the rich from the poor. Although the Braves don't fit the profile of Kansas City or Pittsburgh, their current television deal is awful.  

If you don't believe me, take it from Braves CEO Terry McGuirk, per David O'Brien of The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. The Braves executive had this to say about the franchise's television deal:

We have a long-term, 20-year deal. It is what it is. It was a deal that we didn’t like when we saw it, when we inherited it. And we knew that in the performance of time, it would probably not be the deal that we would like to have in the marketplace to exploit.

For the Braves, money is a major factor. Unlike other MLB franchises, Atlanta can't support a year-to-year payroll in excess of $100 million. In fact, over the last 10 years, the Braves have sported a payroll that high just once (2008) and averaged an Opening Day payroll of $89.6 million over the last four years, per Cot's Baseball Contracts.

While the team may have few large commitments—especially after allowing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson to depart in free agency—their payroll before arbitration settlements is a bit deceiving. 

Through a combination of a fertile farm system, timing and poor luck, the Braves are in the midst of dealing with one of the biggest and most expensive arbitration-eligible classes in history. As Mark Bowman of MLB.com explained here, seven Braves filed for arbitration this winter.

The sinister seven: Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Chris Johnson and Jordan Schafer. 

When reading over the following chart of arbitration projections, the $55 million payroll quickly and swiftly projects to over $85 million. 

Atlanta Braves Arbitration Projections
PlayerPositionProjection2014 Salary
Craig KimbrelRP$7.25MTBD
Kris MedlenSP$5.9M$5.8M
Freddie Freeman1B$4.9MTBD
Jason HeywardOF$4.5MTBD
Chris Johnson3B$4.2$4.75M
Mike MinorSP$3.5M$3.85M
Jordan SchaferOF$1M$1.09M
MLB Trade Rumors

Within days of filing, Johnson ($4.75 million), Schafer ($1.09 million), Minor ($3.85 million) and Medlen ($5.8 million) had settled (all according to Mark Bowman), thereby avoiding a hearing, and, perhaps most importantly, backed up Matt Swartz's arbitration projections for MLB Trade Rumors. 

Over the next few weeks, Atlanta will have major decisions to make on three key members of their future: Kimbrel, Freeman and Heyward. A case can be made to extend each of the three, especially Heyward, therefore ending this year-to-year charade and giving Atlanta cost certainty moving forward.

If settlements aren't rendered, the team could be headed to messy hearings and record-breaking salaries for these young players. As you can easily see, the 2014 Braves payroll may be careening to its usual plateau.

Money, as in the case of any professional team, is a major consideration. Yet, for the current edition of the Braves, it's coupled with a roster that is hard to change. In one way, this is a good thing. Atlanta has built their team for this exact arbitration juncture, has few glaring holes and no obvious free-agent fit on the open market.

Sure, a No. 1 starter would make Atlanta more formidable in the postseason, but spending $17-20 million on a free-agent arm doesn't fit within the budget, nor makes sense considering the surplus of young, ascending starters already in tow.

From Minor to Medlen to the trio of Brandon Beachy, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, the Braves have a five-man staff good enough to win the NL East next season. Gavin Floyd, signed for depth, could turn out to be better for $8.5 million than Tim Hudson will be for the San Francisco Giants at $11.5 million.

The Braves need their stars (Heyward, Justin Upton) to ascend, becoming MVP-level contributors and have bounce-back seasons from former free-agent signings (B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla) on long-term deals. 

If Atlanta had a more lucrative television deal and bigger revenue streams, perhaps Gavin Floyd would be A.J. Burnett or a long-term deal for Jason Heyward would already be done. Those things, despite the excitement it would generate around this team, aren't in the works.

Instead, the Braves will return in 2014 as a very good team that's capable of competing in October once again.

You can say the Atlanta front office is playing things "too safely" this winter, but in reality, finances, timing and roster construction didn't give them much of a choice. 

Should the Braves have done more to improve this winter?

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