What, Exactly, Are the Braves Up To?

Alex Anthopoulos
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Pity the accounting department for the Braves. They’ve had a terrifically busy offseason, which thus far has amounted to not a whole lot of change in terms of roster composition. Since the end of the postseason, they have signed one major league free agent and made no fewer than eight trades involving at least one major league player. They have also already traded or released not one but five players acquired by trade this offseason.

So what does it all amount to?

For a couple years during my ill-spent youth, I was a basketball blogger, writing about the early Process-era Sixers. Several of my blogmates went on to become full-time NBA beat writers, and in following their work, I’ve been amazed at the amount of accounting minutiae an NBA writer is expected to know. Bird Rights, the room exception, the taxpayer mid-level exception… I don’t know how they do it.

Over the past 30 years, the MLBPA has repeatedly indicated that it would never accept a salary cap, not even under pain of death. And I’m with them — not because of any sense of worker solidarity, but because I would rather cut out my own pancreas than learn how to navigate an NBA-style salary cap system. But the Braves have done so much accounting malarkey in the past month that I had to channel an NBA writer, roll up my sleeves, and get biceps-deep in the spreadsheets. (By which I mean I opened Roster Resource and asked Jon Becker a bunch of questions.) But I think I get it now; I think I’ve seen the Matrix.

I already evaluated (and quite favorably, from Atlanta’s perspective) the Jarred Kelenic trade when it happened. But in order to understand the Braves’ offseason as a whole, I wanted to zoom out and look at the forest instead of individual trees.

Braves’ Offseason Additions
Ray Kerr Pre-ARB
Aaron Bummer 1 year, $6.75 million guaranteed, options for 2025 and 2026
Penn Murfee Pre-ARB
Reynaldo López 3 years, $30 million, plus 2027 option
Jarred Kelenic Pre-ARB
Leury García Minor league contract
David Fletcher Two years, $14 million guaranteed, options for 2026 and 2027
Angel Perdomo Pre-ARB

So they added Kelenic, a risky but talented young outfielder with five more years of team control. They also signed López, who could be either the team’s no. 5 starter or a solid bullpen option. (I believe he’ll be the latter, which is why later in this article I’ll be lumping him in with a group of relievers for simplicity’s sake.) Bummer, a good reliever who had awful results in 2023, and Kerr, who is left-handed and alive, will join the major league bullpen now. Murfee and Perdomo are currently injured and could join the bullpen later.

That leaves Fletcher and García, a pair of (at this point) quad-A utilitymen. Fletcher has two more guaranteed years on a contract he originally signed with the Angels. He went unclaimed twice on waivers last season, so the Braves outrighted him to the minors. He’s expected to be Atlanta’s utility infielder this coming season, but leaving him off the 40-man roster keeps the Braves’ options open for now.

Group two: Players the Braves traded away. Like every team, Atlanta cleaned out the back end of its 26-man roster at season’s end. Various players left via free agency; others had options declined or were non-tendered. I’m less interested in those players, as their departures are just part of the circle of life. Here are the players the Braves traded away.

Braves’ Offseason Deletions
Kyle Wright ARB 1
Michael Soroka ARB 3
Braden Shewmake MiLB
Drew Campbell MiLB
Tyler Thomas MiLB
Nicky Lopez ARB 2
Jared Shuster Pre-ARB
Riley Gowens MiLB
Cole Phillips MiLB
Nick Anderson ARB 2

This list is why everyone’s so worked up about the Braves, because there are a ton of big names here. It wasn’t too long ago that Soroka and Wright were building blocks for the rotation. Anderson was the relief ace for a team in the World Series. Shewmake and Shuster are recent first-round picks. Lopez is a guy everyone’s heard of.

In actuality, every single one of these players was a candidate to be non-tendered. Wright has three years of team control left, but he’ll probably spend at least half of that time recovering from a shoulder injury, if he comes back at all. Soroka has one season of team control left and has thrown 46 major league innings over the past four seasons. Anderson has barely pitched since 2020. The names might be exciting, but most of these players were probably headed for non-tender status had Atlanta not found homes for them.

Then there are the five players the Braves acquired and then got rid of.

Evan White Minus-$4.5 million in cash, No tax impact
Matt Carpenter One year, $4 million
Marco Gonzales One year, $9.25 million
Jackson Kowar None
Max Stassi One year, $6.26 million

Four of these players carried cash offsets either on their way in or out of Atlanta. The numbers listed here are the net impact to the Braves’ finances in 2024. They retained salary when trading away Gonzales and Stassi; the Padres retained part of Carpenter’s salary, but the Braves ate the rest when they cut him. The Mariners agreed to pay $2.25 million of White’s salary for each of the final two years of his contract; when the Braves shipped him along to the Angels, they kept the cash but will no longer receive a credit against the competitive balance tax.

Braves’ Offseason Extensions
Joe Jiménez 3 years, $26 million
Pierce Johnson 2 years, $14.25 million, 2026 option

The fourth group of players worth mentioning are these two relievers: Jiménez and Johnson. Correction: I originally had Johnson down as having two arbitration years left; he was due to be a free agent at season’s end. And a hearty welcome to those of you who stumbled onto this article by Googling “Pierce Johnson Extension.” Never let it be said that I don’t know SEO.

Now, after all that preamble, down to business.

Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos has it pretty easy these days. His roster is basically the NL All-Star team, and the overwhelming majority of those players are signed to long-term extensions worth no more than $21.2 million a year. The reigning NL MVP, Ronald Acuña Jr., is under team control for five more years at $17 million per, and because his contract was so heavily backloaded, he costs the Braves less against the CBT than Craig Kimbrel costs the Orioles.

You can do a lot of fun stuff with that many good players on below-market deals — like, for instance, win 104 games without paying the luxury tax, which Atlanta did in 2023. But those contracts are starting to add up. The Braves didn’t pay the tax in 2022, but they went slightly over in ’23, with a total luxury tax payroll of $245.9 million. That includes all the minor payments that get lumped into the CBT figure: benefits, salaries of minor league players on the 40-man roster, Atlanta’s share of the pre-arbitration bonus pool, the works.

As currently constituted, the Braves’ 2024 payroll for CBT purposes is $269.3 million, according to Roster Resource. Let’s say they had non-tendered or declined options on all the players they let go in real life, plus all the arbitration-eligible players they shipped off to Chicago and Kansas City. And let’s say they also let Jiménez and Johnson walk. That would’ve brought the Braves to a team payroll of $210.3 million. That’s well under the luxury tax threshold and would’ve allowed them to avoid paying a repeater penalty. But stopping there has a price.

The Braves came into this offseason with two holes to fill: The bullpen and left field. Out of the dozen or so confusing transactions they have made this offseason, every single one boils down to filling one of those two holes. First — both organizationally and chronologically — the bullpen. Had the Braves let Johnson and Jiménez go, they would’ve been left with a bullpen headed by A.J. Minter and Raisel Iglesias, and not a lot of depth besides. “Minter, Iglesias, and pray for…” something. No, wait, I got it backwards: “Iglesias, Minter, and pray for winter.” That road goes under the luxury tax threshold, but it also probably ends with Bryce Harper hitting something like 4,000 feet of home runs in another four-game NLDS loss to the Phillies.

So the Braves extended their two existing pitchers, signed López, and traded for Bummer. And all it cost them was some Quad-A depth, two guys they were going to cut anyway, and money. Quite a bit of money, it should be said; those four pitchers are going to cost a total of $32.5 million against the tax, in addition to $16 million for Iglesias, $1.9 million for Tyler Matzek, and an estimated $6.5 million arbitration award for Minter. It’s an expensive bullpen, but a good one. And because the Braves are paying their All-Star catcher like it’s the 1990s, they can splurge a little on areas of weakness.

Let’s count all that shoring up of the bullpen and pitching depth as done. That brings Atlanta’s total taxable payroll to $242.8 million, or just over the first tax threshold.

There are, as you probably know, four tax thresholds. The first taxes expenditures over a certain dollar figure outlined in each year of the CBA; in 2024, that line is $237 million. How much of a tax depends on how many consecutive years the team exceeds the limit. For a second-year taxpayer, like Atlanta, the rate is 30%. There are additional surcharges imposed on teams that go $20 million, $40 million, and $60 million over the CBT limit, and teams that exceed the $40 million tax threshold get their first- or second-round draft pick moved back 10 spots.

So the Braves fixed their bullpen and were over the tax no matter what happened after that. And they still had a gaping hole in left field.

The best way to understand what happened next is to oversimplify a little. The Mariners basically gave Kelenic away in order to get the White and Gonzales contracts off their books. And the Braves have money. After they shored up the bullpen, they were going to pay the repeater penalty anyway, and they had about $35 million in additional runway before they hit a number that would cost them anything more than money.

Braves’ CBT Situation
Tax Threshold Dollar Value Current Tax Room W/o Relievers* W/o Kelenic Tree W/o Either
Base $237,000,000 ($32,338,334) $4,203,333 ($9,828,334) $26,713,333
First Surcharge $257,000,000 ($12,338,334) $24,203,333 $10,171,666 $46,713,333
Second Surcharge $277,000,000 $7,661,666 $44,203,333 $30,171,666 $66,713,333
Third Surcharge $297,000,000 $27,661,666 $64,203,333 $50,171,666 $86,713,333
*Relievers: Cost to extend Jiménez and Johnson, and acquire López, Bummer, and Kerr

Everything that came after the original trade was the result of Atlanta shuffling money around. The Braves had no particular need of White or Gonzales. They have first base as locked down as any team in baseball, thanks to Matt Olson. And while a pitcher like Gonzales could be useful, they are going to go into 2024 with a full rotation — López is going to start the season there — plus Huascar Ynoa coming off the IL, plus AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep not far from being ready to fill a rotation spot full-time.

The Braves only saved $3 million by dumping Gonzales off on Pittsburgh for a party-size tub of popcorn, but in all honesty, they might end up needing the $3 million more than they need him. They then traded a player on a bad contract whom they had no use whatsoever for (White) for a player on a shorter bad contract whom they had no use whatsoever for (Stassi) and a player on a bad contract who could be useful (Fletcher). Then they picked up Kerr, who if nothing else is a live relief arm, as thanks for taking on part of Carpenter’s contract from San Diego.

Anthopoulos got his hands on four different contracts that a middling team regretted giving out a couple years ago (five, if you count Bummer) and laundered those players in various corners of the league. That cost the Braves $26.51 million against the CBT this year and $7 million next year. He also got cash from the Mariners that won’t help limit the tax assessment but will subsidize part of the tax bill. In exchange for all that, he acquired Kelenic, Kerr, and the faint hope that Fletcher will remember how to hit again, without giving up a prospect worth talking about. Basically, all it cost was cash.

Braves Offseason Breakdown
Spending Current W/o Relievers* W/o Kelenic Tree W/o Either
Tax Bill $11,182,100 $0 $2,948,500 $0
CBT Number $269,338,334 $232,796,667 $246,828,334 $210,286,667
Evan White** ($2,250,000) ($2,250,000) $0 $0
Total $278,270,434 $230,546,667 $249,776,834 $210,286,667
*Relievers: Cost to extend Jiménez and Johnson, and acquire López, Bummer, and Kerr
**Cash sent from Seattle in original trade

The luxury tax is positively insidious, because it sets a spending threshold that teams can easily sell to fans and the media as inviolable. In reality, tax penalties are pretty insignificant for most teams. Under the current CBA, there have been 15 instances of teams going over the tax; 10 of those teams paid $6 million or less in actual penalties.

The Braves plugged their two remaining holes in their roster by paying some $68 million in salary and penalties this coming season. Of that, about $28.5 million went toward acquiring Kelenic and Fletcher. Considering the cost of free-agent outfield help and the fact that Kelenic is under team control for five more seasons, that makes sense. All that dead money wasn’t a waste; it was a means to an end, particularly when you consider that the Braves were going to spend up to the cusp of the second surcharge level anyway.

Seven free agents turned down qualifying offers this year. So far, three have signed: Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Nola, and Sonny Gray. The Braves were in on all of them. And you can see, in the timing of their various offseason moves, how they moved from prime free-agent targets to alternatives. Nola re-signed with the Phillies on November 19; the Braves signed López the next day. What’s $28.5 million? It’s a little bit more than the $27 million per year that the Braves offered Nola. The Kelenic trade happened the night before the official start of Winter Meetings, right as Ohtani’s market started to narrow to three or four finalists. (Though I assume that if Ohtani had been interested in playing in Atlanta, all budgetary considerations would’ve been up for negotiation.)

At the start of this century, popular baseball analysis shifted to focus less on pure evaluation and more on the efficiency of resource allocation. It started as an intellectual puzzle to find ways small-market teams could compete with the Yankees and ended with the pursuit of efficiency for efficiency’s sake. We failed (and I use “we” broadly; I was in high school when Moneyball came out) by celebrating the exploitation of market inefficiencies and ending there. It took years before the obvious follow-up question got asked: “…and do what with that surplus?” For the past 15 years, owners have answered that question by pocketing the savings brought on by new efficiencies in scouting and player development. Too few teams have reinvested their resources in making the major league team better through trades and free agency.

This has been a steady criticism of the Braves, with their army of players on long-term team-friendly contracts. And while the ethical implications of leveraging the inherent powerlessness of pre-arbitration players are obvious, I’ve had a hard time mustering up the gumption to demand that they spend more. They’ve won six straight division titles, they’re coming off back-to-back 100-win seasons, they won the World Series two years ago, and they’re spending enough to keep that winning core together. Given all that, I don’t care too much what they do with their surplus.

Nevertheless, they had plans for this offseason: Sign Ohtani, or more realistically, Nola. When that fell through at the very beginning of the offseason, Anthopoulos found a way to use that financial surplus to make his team better. And all it cost, for all practical purposes, was money. It might look like the most complicated offseason in years, but it really is that simple.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 months ago

I don’t think the Braves were really all that in on Ohtani and I’m not sure where you’re getting that. There are also conflicting reports about whether they actually made that offer to Nola that the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Last edited 4 months ago by rc1013
4 months ago
Reply to  rc1013

AA confirmed they were in on Nola although didn’t get into the details (understandably): https://theathletic.com/5152620/2023/12/21/atlanta-braves-gm-alex-anthopoulos/

4 months ago
Reply to  rc1013

I agree on Ohtani, and although AA never mentioned $ amts, he did mention they went after Nola.

Super interesting breakdown of that 2nd tax threshold and pushing their pick back, which would also reduce their bonus allocation. I wonder how, if at all, that would impact or shape a potential Cease trade. Currently estimated ~$8M per Spotrac.

4 months ago
Reply to  rc1013

Agreed. Also, the idea that Braves signed Lopez as a consolation prize/alternative for missing out on Nola (and comparing Nola’s AAV to Lopez’s 3 year contract total to support the idea) makes little sense.

Last edited 4 months ago by tung_twista
4 months ago
Reply to  rc1013

Honestly, even a GM texting a player’s agent asking “hey, what kind of contract are you guys looking for?” is more than enough for writers to publish a “(TEAM) IS INTERESTED IN (PLAYER)” article, even though nothing ever actually comes out of it.

4 months ago
Reply to  rc1013

I think the author doesn’t let facts get in the way of the story he wants to tell. While I think it’s useful to summarize all the Braves’ moves as spending $68M this year to extend Jimenez and Johnson, sign Lopez, and trade for Bummer and Kelenic, inferring that these moves substituted for missing out on Ohtani or Nola is silly. The story is more “What do you get the already stacked, high-payroll team with a lot of its great core earning pre-FA salaries for years to come?” Answer — RELIEVERS — even worth taking on tax penalties for! Or at least the Braves think so.

His paragraph on Moneyball market efficiency is silly too. He asks “What did they do with the surplus?” Some money went into the owners’ pockets as MLBPA’s share of revenue went from about 51% to around 45% where it is today, though that’s on a much higher revenue base with the invention of MLB BAM. More just went into paying and playing players based on WAR rather than on counting numbers. Thus, shift playing time and payroll from guys like Dan Uggla (36 HRs in 2011, but only 2.3 FWAR) to Ben Zobrist (only 20 HRs in 2011, but 6.4 FWAR). That’s how market efficiency or capitalism works. The MLB is better for it.

4 months ago
Reply to  Shalesh

A lot of downvotes, but no one is presenting a counterargument.

4 months ago
Reply to  airforce21one

Yeah, maybe a little harsh at the start and could have said that nicer, but I basically agreed with this entire comment.

4 months ago
Reply to  airforce21one

Downvoted for using “The MLB.”