Braves fans have been none too pleased to see a surprising NL East title and NLDS appearance followed up by a relatively quiet offseason. While Atlanta made a big splash early by signing Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal and followed that with the nostalgic addition of Brian McCann, there’s been little activity since. Atlanta re-upped with Nick Markakis on an affordable one-year deal which, while reasonable from a financial perspective, did little to satiate those who’d been hoping for a higher-profile splash. The Braves remain a clear contender in a densely packed NL East, but have arguably bypassed some worthwhile chances to boost their odds of a repeat division title.
At the time of the Markakis re-signing, Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos preached that the pickup created unexpected financial flexibility and suggested that further additions could be made as a result. (“Nick coming back on these terms allow[s] us to pursue other things, have financial flexibility to improve the club in other ways.”) Since then, however, the club has remained quiet, and Anthopoulos has publicly cast doubt on the possibility of a reunion with Craig Kimbrel, suggesting that allocating “big, elite dollars” to a reliever may not be feasible for the organization.
With fan frustration building, Anthopoulos and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk told their side of the story to Jeff Schultz and David O’Brien of The Athletic (subscription link). It’s obviously well worth a read in its entirety, for Braves fans in particular, though the broader takeaways largely reflect prior statements from Anthopoulos. We’ll run through some of the most salient points here.
McGuirk emphasized throughout the interview that the team’s 40-man payroll is higher now than it was a year ago. He drew a distinction to the 2018 version of the club, which was paying a variety of expensive players who were no longer with the organization. The organization is “being very careful” to avoid the “mistake” of taking on a deal that turns into “dead money,” he emphasized. Anthopoulos also stressed the importance of managing contract length. A player “might fit the 2019 club,” he noted, “[b]ut what if you’re signing the guy to a long-term deal?”
Those talking points dovetail with the club’s stance that its available payroll is in fact rising. Per the execs, it’s just that the team has not elected to deploy it all and is being cautious not to over-commit its future resources. Anthopoulos sought to explain the seeming disconnect between the organization’s longstanding assertion that it’d have plenty of spending capacity this winter and the general lack of activity. There was and is “a lot of room” to spend, he said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to [spend the available payroll] just for the sake of doing it.”
The issue, per Anthopoulos, isn’t that the club can’t afford some of the players who have gone off the board. It’s that the front office does not “believe in some of the deals right now.” Both executives also emphasized a need to budget for possible mid-season acquisitions. While the offseason is “certainly relevant … the psychological value when you add to your team at the trade deadline is appreciable,” says McGuirk.
So, how does the club view its payroll position in comparison to the rest of the league? Both interviewees emphasized the upward trajectory more than the present commitments. “Our budgeted number absolutely is trending toward the middle” of spending league-wide, says Anthopoulos. By McGuirk’s reckoning: “We’ve been a bottom-10 payroll team for a couple of years. We’ve messaged that we want to get to the middle, and I think this year begins to get us to that neighborhood. I expect that we push beyond that in the coming five years.”
There are certainly those who’d say the pace ought to increase, particularly given the strides made last season. McGuirk says he has the authority to authorize spending as he sees fit, without interference from the club’s corporate ownership group. “We’ve never ever checked with Liberty on a salary decision, a free-agent signing, nothing,” he says. But what of the earnings from the new ballpark and last year’s postseason run? Paying down debt and principal on the club’s ballpark project will “produce profitability” in the future, he says, and that will help the organization move “from that small middle-market team to high middle-market team to even potentially something bigger.”
Is the organization cheap or a budding financial behemoth? Has it missed opportunities or averted risks? Is the front office blowing chances or wisely propping open windows? Fans will have to reach their own conclusions as to the validity of the explanations proffered.
So far as near-term roster considerations are concerned, the outlook remains murky. “We still have an appreciable amount of dry powder ready to go,” says McGuirk. Meanwhile, Anthopoulos says it’s a “coin flip” as to whether he’ll make another notable addition between now and Opening Day (which Schultz defined as a top two starter, an everyday player or a high-end reliever). At the same time, many of the above-cited comments seem to cast doubt on the likelihood of additional spending. The team “explored” but passed on adding Charlie Morton, Anibal Sanchez, Sonny Gray, Edwin Diaz, and J.T. Realmuto this winter, Anthopoulos acknowledged, so the organization has knocked on doors. At the same time, as Anthopoulos puts it, “we’re just not going to force it.”