Atlanta Flexes Its Financial Muscles With Extensions

When the Braves signed Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies to phenomenally team-friendly contracts before the 2019 season, two distinct possibilities loomed. First, the team could bank the money they saved and put out a good team at a discounted price. Second, they could reinvest those savings and attempt to put together a great team. Which they chose would say a lot about how the team planned on operating long-term.

The question is no longer open. The Braves have overcome a season-ending injury to Acuña to surge to the top of the NL East, and while the Phillies and Mets continue to nip at their heals, they’re well on their way to a fourth straight division title. They’ve done so thanks to some new young contributors — Austin Riley and Ian Anderson have come into their own this year. They’ve made some savvy signings and trades — Charlie Morton has been their best pitcher this year, and Jorge Soler has been excellent since joining the team.

Now, the Braves are making moves to prolong their stay atop the division. In late August, they signed Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year extension. They followed that up by signing Morton to a one-year deal (both contracts have team options tacked on). Let’s take a look at both of those deals, as well as how they affect the team’s outlook for next year and beyond.

Signing d’Arnaud to an extension — two years and $16 million with a team option for a third year — was hardly an obvious move for the team. He missed the majority of the season after tearing a ligament in his thumb in May. He’s hit well since his return, but even so, his seasonal line works out to an 84 wRC+. Combine that with solid receiving, and the total package works out to a roughly average catcher.

What made the Braves so eager to lock d’Arnaud up? His replacements fell well short of that average catcher bar. On the year, Atlanta’s catcher position has produced -1.4 WAR, the worst mark in the majors. It’s not an individual problem; a huge array of catchers have combined to weigh the position down:

Atlanta’s Catching Futility
Player PA wRC+ Def WAR
Travis d’Arnaud 148 84 4.2 0.5
Jonathan Lucroy 9 130 -0.1 0.1
Jeff Mathis 9 -100 0.3 -0.2
Alex Jackson 28 -20 0.2 -0.3
William Contreras 166 72 -3.0 -0.4
Kevan Smith 101 17 2.6 -0.5
Stephen Vogt 85 2 1.9 -0.5

Relative to that mess, d’Arnaud is a huge improvement. That’s not to say that Contreras won’t figure it out, or that Vogt isn’t a capable backup. But for a team with an embarrassment of riches at most positions, giving away so much value at catcher doesn’t make sense. It gets worse: the list of free agent catchers this offseason is nasty, brutish, and short. Yan Gomes and Martín Maldonado are the headliners, and it gets worse from there. Miss signing your target, and you might be in for a long offseason.

It’s not just stability at an acceptable level, though; d’Arnaud has shown flashes of being far better than that, a plus offensive presence at the toughest defensive position on the field. In 2020, he had a breakout season, hitting .321/.386/.533 over 31 starts, good for a 144 wRC+. That’s hardly a reasonable expectation for him going forward, but he’s displayed plus power in four straight years now, and he doesn’t need to retain all of that power to clear a league average batting line given his career 18.8% strikeout rate.

Morton signed for more money than d’Arnaud, and he deserves it. After flirting with retirement this offseason, he’s been a rock atop the Atlanta rotation, making every start and putting up a 3.47 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 3.25 xFIP, 3.33 xERA, 3.52 SIERA, and probably a mid-3.00’s mark in several ERA estimators so advanced they haven’t yet been discovered. In other words, he’s been late-career Charlie Morton; since turning his career around in Houston, he’s put up a 3.37 ERA and 3.28 FIP over five years of work.

What’s more, he’s fought off the specter of aging spectacularly. His fastball averaged only 93.4 mph in 2020, his worst mark since his Houston rejuvenation. That was down more than a tick since 2019, which was itself down more than a tick from ’18. I don’t have to draw you a trendline; that’s a bad pattern. This year, he’s back up to 95.5 mph, and he’s throwing his snapdragon curveball harder than he has in four years.

Worried about spin in the wake of the foreign substance crackdown? Morton averaged 2,339 rpm on his fastball before the crackdown. Since then, he’s averaged… 2,337 rpm. He’s gained a hair of velocity, but it’s a non-story. There’s very little to nitpick about his season; his walk rate is up a smidge, but overall, it looks like he’s the same ageless Morton as ever, a two-pitch monster who will turn in six innings of solid work every five days until the heat death of the universe.

Does that production merit a $20 million contract? In my eyes, it easily does. Contracts will likely look different after this year’s CBA negotiation, but durable pitchers with track records of excellent performance are always going to be hot items in free agency. Getting someone like that on a one-year deal is the brass ring; Morton has said he’ll only play in the Southeast, so many teams wouldn’t be able to compete for his services, but on the open market, I think he’d be able to secure an even larger one-year deal.

There’s the matter of his team option, but it’s honestly a small matter. If Morton doesn’t want to play after next year, he’ll retire. If he wants to stay with the Braves, they’ll work something out. That might sound overly simple, but when you’re a pitcher of Morton’s caliber willing to sign a one-year deal, you can generally count on teams working with you on it.

The Braves have plenty of exciting young arms, but Morton is both a stabilizing presence and the staff ace. Anderson and Max Fried have both been excellent this year, but they’ve missed their fair share of starts — Morton has made 28, against 23 for Fried and 24 for Anderson (counting Triple-A). Mike Soroka won’t be back before next year’s All-Star break. Huascar Ynoa has been a pleasant surprise, but it’s hard to count on him as more than a mid-rotation arm next year. Morton upgrades the situation from sketchy to plus.

In fact, these two extensions set the Braves up to be above-average nearly across the board next year — give or take some outfield musical chairs. The key remaining point of uncertainty is what Freddie Freeman will do. Most likely, the answer is simple: he and the team will agree on an extension that lets him retire as a Brave, or at least keeps him on the team for the foreseeable future. He’s coming off an eight-year contract at only 31 years of age (32 when the contract actually expires) thanks to an extension he signed early in his career.

What it might cost to retain Freeman is an interesting question. Loyalty aside, he’s the best pure hitter available in this free agent class — sorry, Nelson Cruz, Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, and Corey Seager. On the other hand, he’s a corner infielder above the age of 30, hardly a group that draws outsize interest on the open market. Something like four years and $80 million would work for both parties; it’s close to fair value for his contributions, keeps him in Atlanta long enough that he can chase career milestones and Hall of Fame accolades there, and threads the needle of reducing his salary without looking like a slap in the face. I have no information on this whatsoever, but a deal in that vein makes perfect sense to me.

Here again, the Acuña and Albies contracts pay huge dividends (and underscore just how absurdly team friendly they were). The two of them stand to make a combined $20 million in 2022, $12 million more than they made this year. But that’s still a huge surplus for the team, which gives them the ability to spend elsewhere. With Marcell Ozuna’s future on the team very much in doubt, you might expect Atlanta to pinch pennies elsewhere, but their two under-market stars give them the space to splurge.

If the team extends Freeman for $20 million dollars and allows the rest of their free agents to walk — Drew Smyly, Eddie Rosario, Chris Martin, Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, and Soler are the headliners there — they’ll have a payroll in the $140-150 million range next year, depending on arbitration awards and non-tender decisions. That’s assuming they’re still responsible for Ozuna’s contract, which is unclear at the moment.

If ever you needed an example of why teams want to sign their young stars to extensions, look no further. Whatever you think of those contracts (and you’d be forgiven if Albies’ in particular makes you cringe), it’s hard to disagree with the way Atlanta is using them to build a roster. Their existing contracts give them the ability to target proven veterans to fill in the rest of the roster. That can happen in free agency, but it can also take the form of extending the ones they’ve already found. Assuming they keep Freeman in the fold, it’s hard to find fault with the path they’ve chosen.

All statistics for games through September 6.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Ozzie Albies
8 months ago

You’re welcome.

Smiling Politelymember
8 months ago
Reply to  Ozzie Albies

I get you’re making below market rate, but it’s still enough to be a Member, Ozzie