Keith Law did not like this week’s trade (ESPN Insider article) that saw Touki Toussaint and Bronson Arroyo go from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Atlanta Braves. It’s not that Law didn’t like the trade from the perspective of one team or the other. It’s that he didn’t like the spirit of the trade, period: it was, indisputably, a swap of contracts instead of an even exchange of on-field talent.
What does a league look like where plenty, if not most, trades are motivated by their financial implications? Well, it’s not the end of the world: this is what the NBA has been about for years. The NBA combines baseball’s almost entirely guaranteed salaries with a soft cap, like baseball, that, unlike baseball, is restrictive enough that even mid-market teams can unwittingly bump up against it. “Expiring” contracts — or, inefficient deals with less than a year remaining on them — have been a long-coveted NBA asset: salary albatrosses are willingly taken on precisely because they will end quickly enough for the team to have an even more valuable asset — space and flexibility underneath the cap — in time for the offseason free-agent market.
The Toussaint/Arroyo deal is far from the first trade with layered financial implications that the Braves have made since last October’s promotion of John Hart. Although I can’t quite track the thinking behind all of Hart’s transactions — I don’t think I’m the only one who is mystified about the presence of Nick Markakis and Jonny Gomes — I think he has been admirably clever and proactive in quickly implementing an NBA-style rebuild.
Because the Braves are in no danger of running into baseball’s sky-high luxury tax line, the Braves haven’t been pursuing expiring contracts. (Their largest is Juan Uribe at $4.6M.) There’s one adjustment required to translate this strategy from the NBA to the MLB: the Braves have been pursuing — or perhaps a better way to say it is that they’ve been unafraid to take on — dead money. According to numbers from Spotrac, 28.3% of the Braves’ current payroll is wrapped up in dead salary. Most teams are under 5% dead salary. A few are at 0%. There are only three other teams in the Braves’ neighborhood, and they’re all there for entirely different motivations. The Los Angeles Angels (16.6%) are there because of the Josh Hamilton fiasco. The Los Angeles Dodgers (18.9%) are there because of their famous largesse: willing to pay Matt Kemp, Dan Haren, and Brian Wilson to leave and thereby free a roster spot. The Arizona Diamondbacks (22%) owe Cody Ross, Trevor Cahill, and Mark Trumbo in an attempt to clear the slate for next season.
The thing is, that 28.3% portion hardly covers all of the Braves’ contracts that we think of as “dead.” Arroyo’s $9.5M is presumed a sunk cost — as was Cameron Maybin’s $7M (and $8M in 2016) at the time of his eve-of-the-season trade and before his convincing resurgence. These are two of the four largest contracts on the Braves’ active payroll, Markakis and Freddie Freeman being the others.
In the course of taking on so many “toxic” assets (quotes because of Maybin’s awesome turnaround), Atlanta has acquired a high volume of premium prospects in an incredibly short span of time. Unlike Jeff Luhnow’s Astros or Dayton Moore’s Royals — two teams which had to be rebooted basically from scratch — the Braves already had a contention-worthy nucleus in place. Instead of wandering in the desert for three or four years, their efforts over the last eight months look like an incredibly effective one-year pivot, sped up exponentially by the team’s willingness to temporarily hold a bad contract.
The results have already shown at the major-league level — and this is before the Braves’ small army of recently acquired top-200 prospects have arrived in Atlanta: Rio Ruiz, Max Fried, Ricardo Sanchez, Tyrell Jenkins, Manny Banuelos,Matt Wisler, and Toussaint. It’s already shown at the major-league level before the Braves’ bounty of early picks in this month’s draft have started their trip through the minors. (Atlanta selected at 14, 28, 41, 54, and 75 this year after having only two picks in the top 100 [32 and 66] last June.)
Measuring offensive production only from players who are 25 and under, last season the Braves ranked second in plate appearances and second in WAR. But, aha, the lion’s share of that production came from Jason Heyward, who is dramatically different from most 25-year-olds, as he played a full season at age 20. Even after trading Heyward, though, the Braves’ total production from under-25 position players has remained virtually the same in 2015: Atlanta is third in plate appearances and fourth in WAR.
Atlanta’s pitchers under 25 have been even more impressive. Last season, the Braves finished sixth in innings pitched and fifth in WAR from under-25s. This year, they are first and first in both categories. It’s not very close in the innings pitched category, either: 60 of the Braves’ 71 games have been started by a pitcher 25 or younger, and they have nearly double the total innings over the second-place Oakland A’s. Considering the team is relying this move on pre-prime players, hanging out around .500 has to be considered an accomplishment.
Perhaps the best part of Atlanta’s plan: just like an NBA team taking on dead salary-weight, the Braves are effectively purchasing future flexibility. Next season, that gargantuan portion of dead money dwindles down to a negligible $300,000. The Braves have the eighth-smallest amount of money committed to next year’s team (the linked chart does not predict next winter’s arbitration deals in its totals), ahead of eternally threadbare teams like the A’s, Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins, and Pittsburgh Pirates.
So why aren’t the Braves buzzed about like the presumptive dynasties that the Cubs, Astros, Royals have meticulously pieced together? Well, when your team-building strategy includes actively trading for players like Carlos Quentin, it establishes a pretty strong anti-buzz forcefield. That doesn’t mean the Braves’ strategy will be any less effective in the years to follow. Look for this rebuilding team to acquire even more underwhelming veterans at the trade deadline — it’ll be on purpose.