It's no secret that Atlanta plays home to one of the best collections of young, established big leaguers in the game. The Braves have steamrolled back to the top of the NL East this season, led by that youthful core. Even as the team focuses on the coming post-season, it is worth considering whether, and when, Atlanta will follow the baseball-wide trend of locking up talent through early extensions over the coming offseason.
The list of reasonable possibilities is extensive, and impressive: first baseman Freddie Freeman; Andrelton Simmons at short; outfielder Jason Heyward; maybe even third-bagger Chris Johnson. Then, there are the pitchers: Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Jonny Venters, and Julio Teheran could all make sense, either now or in the foreseeable future. These players — eight of the team's top nine in terms of fWAR (excepting the injured Beachy and Venters) — have all yet to reach their second year of arbitration.
With this many candidates, it is difficult to analyze each player on his own merit. (MLBTR has recently looked at the cases for Heyward and Medlen, though the situations of both players have changed somewhat over the season.) As a whole, though, it seems that the Braves have an even greater opportunity — albeit, a more complicated one — than those availed of recently by so many other teams. As MLBTR's Zach Links has explained, the increasing utilization of early-career extensions has created fears that the free agent market will be depressed. Such extensions, Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus wrote, have become "the mainstream strategy."
To date, however, the Braves have not locked up any of their young stars. After passing on Michael Bourn, Atlanta is poised to do the same with 29-year-old catcher Brian McCann and 28-year-old reliever Eric O'Flaherty, both of whom reach free agency after distinguishing themselves with the Braves. (MLBTR's Mark Polishuk profiled the extension case for O'Flaherty in March of last year, a year before he was lost to Tommy John surgery; Mike Axisa did the same for Bourn in January of 2012.)
It is not just the recent crop: in the nearly six-year reign of GM Frank Wren, Atlanta has not extended a single player who had less than five years of MLB service time at the time of the deal. The last extension of any kind that the team completed was the five-year, $62MM contract given Dan Uggla in January of 2011, which was agreed upon immediately after he was traded for — hardly an example of baseball's recent trend. Over Wren's six years, aside from the Uggla deal, the team has only committed $82.25MM in total to extensions, every penny of which went to grizzled veterans Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones, David Ross, and Rafael Soriano.
Of course, there are good explanations for the team's disinclination to focus on extending its core over the last offseason. The front office had other business: it pulled off a blockbuster deal for Justin Upton, who had already been extended by his former club, and inked B.J. Upton to a five-year contract as a free agent.
With at least two years of control still remaining on Atlanta's admirable array of youngsters, there is plenty of time to act. And the team has flexibility: at present, its total future commitments are just $42.4MM for 2014, $42MM for 2015, $15.45MM for 2016, and $16.45MM for 2017. Of course, virtually all of those obligations are tied up in three players, Uggla and the Upton brothers, and the team's opening day payroll has hovered in the $90MM range of late. It may become necessary for the Braves to begin exploring trade opportunities to help manage the coming burst in salary obligations.
Focusing on the possibility of extensions, Wren could look to bag the players with less service time while a bargain is still possible, or could focus on extending control over those that are closer to reaching the open market. (This latter group could include the younger Upton, whose deal expires after 2015.) Or, he could continue to let his players earn their salaries year to year, at least for another season. Whether the Braves aim to work out long-term deals as the cost begins to rise through the arbitration process — and, if so, how they prioritize negotiations amongst so many viable candidates — will be fascinating to watch over the coming winter and spring.