Among the biggest questions on the minds of Braves fans at the moment is whether star shortstop Dansby Swanson will be retained, and whether the long-circulating speculation about a potential run at Jacob deGrom, who’ll opt out of his Mets contract in a couple weeks, will come to fruition in the looming offseason. Either of those endeavors would likely require a nine-figure expenditure, and while Atlanta has spent plenty of money over the past half year, it’s worth taking a deeper look to see just how plausible those scenarios — and any other major splashes on the free-agent or trade markets — might be.
Firstly, with regard to that comment about the Braves spending money, any look at their payroll should begin with a recap of president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos’ historic run of contract extensions. Dating back to March, each of Matt Olson (eight years, $168MM), Austin Riley (ten years, $212MM), Michael Harris II (eight years, $72MM) and Spencer Strider (six years, $75MM) have put pen to paper on long-term deals, effectively etching them in stone alongside Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies as the Braves’ foundation for the foreseeable future. The Braves also preemptively exercised Charlie Morton’s $20MM club option for 2023 and tacked on another $20MM club option for the 2024 season.
It might not have been quite as jarring as seeing the Rangers spend a half-billion dollars on a pair of free agents in a span of about 72 hours last winter, but the Braves still put down their own half-billion dollar investment to keep the bulk of this 2022 core intact for the long haul. That doesn’t even include the eye-opening deadline addition of closer Raisel Iglesias, whom the Braves acquired at a relatively cut-rate prospect cost because they agreed to absorb the entirety of his remaining contract from the Angels. He’ll be paid $48MM from 2023-25.
What does that do to their payroll? As one might expect, even though the majority of the extensions have bargain potential and are backloaded in nature, the 2023 books have inflated in a hurry. The Braves owe a combined $153.8MM to the 15 players who have guaranteed contracts on next year’s books. Add in a potential $12.5MM salary for Jake Odorizzi, who has a player option, and the number jumps to $166.3MM.
Further taking into account Matt Swartz’s projected $20MM in arbitration salaries to Max Fried, A.J. Minter and Mike Soroka (presuming non-tenders for Guillermo Heredia, Silvino Bracho and Tyler Matzek, who recently had Tommy John surgery) — the number balloons to $188.3MM for 19 players. Round that out with pre-arbitration players earning at or near the league minimum, and the Braves will have just over $193MM on next year’s Opening Day roster, before even making an addition.
That figure checks in north of what was this season’s franchise-record Opening Day payroll of roughly $178MM, making the Braves one of just three teams in MLB whose current 2023 payroll projection would be a record high before even making a single move. (The Rockies and Blue Jays are also in this boat, by my calculation.)
Does that mean hope is lost for a significant offseason expenditure? Not necessarily. Braves chairman Terry McGuirk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month that his goal is to be able to allow his front office to field one of the sport’s five largest payrolls. That doesn’t mean the Braves will spend for the sole purpose of soaring up the payroll ranks, but it’s nonetheless a bold declaration from a team’s control person and the type of candor we rarely see from such personnel.
For context’s sake, the sport’s top five Opening Day payrolls in 2022, per figures from Cot’s Contracts, belonged to the Dodgers ($281MM), Mets ($264.5MM), Yankees ($246MM), Phillies ($229MM) and Padres ($211MM). The Braves already ranked ninth in Opening Day payroll this past season, and the projected increase to $193-194MM could well boost them another spot or two.
Of course, when looking at large-scale expenditures and top-five payrolls, the notion of the luxury tax has to be considered. The Braves have never before paid that tax, but if McGuirk is being earnest about fielding a top-five payroll, incurring luxury-related penalization becomes practically a given.
It should be noted, too, that while the Braves’ bottom-line payroll for the 2023 season should check in around $193MM (as things currently stand), the luxury bill is quite a bit higher. That’s the one “downside” to locking in so many stars so early; those extensions come with inherent luxury hits that would not have existed had the team gone year-to-year. Luxury taxation is based on the average annual value of a contract, so keeping Strider and Harris on one-year, pre-arbitration contracts for the 2023 season would’ve meant they’d count for around $1.5MM combined against the tax threshold. Instead, they’ll now come with a combined $21.5MM hit. Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez already has the Braves projected for a bit more than $217MM in luxury obligations — only about $16MM shy of next year’s $233MM first-tier threshold.
Perhaps the Braves will be able to find some takers for a portion of the less-desirable contracts on the books. It’s hard to imagine any team wanting much to do with the remaining two years and $36MM on Marcell Ozuna’s ill-fated four-year deal, but finding a taker for Odorizzi’s final season or the one year and $4.5MM owed to backup catcher Manny Pina is more feasible.
Still, there’s no viable scenario where the Braves could shed enough payroll to be able to re-sign Swanson and make a play for one of the market’s other top free agents without skyrocketing into luxury territory. If McGuirk and Liberty Media (the corporation that owns the Braves) are genuinely willing to push toward a top-five payroll, though, then the Braves can’t be ruled out from making ample free-agent splashes this winter.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the team could yet have hope of extending top starter Max Fried. If that’s the case, the notion of re-signing Swanson and extending Fried alone would push the Braves into luxury territory. In other words, merely keeping the current group together will make the Braves a luxury tax payor. Adding a marquee free agent/trade acquisition (in addition to a potential Swanson and/or Fried deal) could send them hurtling toward the second tier of luxury penalization.
If the Braves are going to have a particularly active offseason — or even if they’re just going to maintain the status quo — they’re going to have to follow a Padres-esque trajectory and set themselves up as potentially annual luxury-tax payors for the foreseeable future.