The Atlanta Braves took two steps towards continuing their return to dominance of the National League East. While some say the Team of the 90’s underachieved by only winning one World Series, I would contend their success is among the greatest in baseball history. The Yankees did have more success in the World Series during the 1950’s. However they did not have to navigate the treachery that is the Major League Playoffs. The Braves were faced with a much longer task and the advent of free agency meant it was harder for teams to retain talent, as that talent could not be controlled for the entire length of their career. Could you imagine what players like Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle could have earned if free agency existed when they played? This adds to how special the Braves were during their run of 14 consecutive National League East titles.
Just as the Yankees continually reach into their deep pockets and sign one big free agent after another, the Braves have an approach all their own. This approach has three parts. First, they develop home grown talent, such as Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine. Second, the trade for young talent which is usually still in the minor leagues, such as John Smoltz. Third they are selective about signing free agents, such as Greg Maddux. The signing of Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman to new deals fits the mold of how the Braves operate, they are keeping their home grown talent. They drafted and developed Heyward and Freeman and are building the future around a young pitching staff and these All Star caliber players.
Jason Heyward is coming off a down year. Although this is primarily due to injuries and he should bounce back in 2014. Heyward’s speed and power make him a prime offensive threat and prevents countless hits from dropping in the outfield. His throwing arm makes any opponent trying to take the extra base think twice and many wisely decide not to. While Heyward has tremendous upside his career thus far has been a little bit of a roll coaster due to a lack of plate discipline in his second season and injuries this past season. The Braves were smart to sign Heyward to a two year, $13.3 million deal as it allows him time to get and stay healthy and for the Braves to not be tied down to a big contract. I expect Heyward to have a great 2014 season. The Braves should be eager to work with him next off season to sign him to a multi-year deal. This saves the Braves some money now and allows Heyward to sign a larger deal as he enters his prime as he will be 26 when this new deal ends. If the Braves are smart they will keep Heyward in Atlanta beyond this new contract and continue to build their new dominance with him as one of the cornerstones.
Freddie Freeman is now the face of the Atlanta Braves. The retirement of Chipper Jones meant the team of the 90’s was gone and the Braves were beginning anew. Freeman has gotten better every year he has been in Atlanta. He hits for power, he hits for average, and he is an excellent defender at first base. He has increased his walk totals and decreased his strikeout totals every season. Freeman is durable and has average 150 games a year in his career without the aid of the DH to keep his bat in the lineup, while giving him days off from the field. Freeman will be 32 when his 8 year, $125 million deal ends in 2021. He will be on the back end of his prime, however the Braves have shown a willingness to work with their best players to keep them in Atlanta and yet continually fielding a contender. Chipper Jones restructured his contract with the Braves, which allowed the front office to continue to put a winner on the field. He has since retired as a legend in Atlanta. I will not be surprised if Freeman does the same thing. He fills a valuable position on the field at a discount later in the contract, as salaries in baseball will undoubtedly continue to go up. Freeman is the left handed bat in the middle of the lineup that helps keep the Braves balanced while protecting Heyward. The Braves are spot on with their signing Freeman to a long term deal as it provides a core to build around and by signing him so early, like the Tampa Bay Rays did with Evan Longoria, Atlanta will be getting All Star caliber play, if not better, at a reduced price.
The Atlanta Braves cannot compete with the Dodgers and Yankees for high priced free agents. At the same time they are not the Houston Astros. They remain in the upper middle class as far as Major League Baseball team payrolls are concerned, and yet nearly every year they out perform their payroll as they have developed quality players at a fraction of the price that a free agent would cost them. You can argue the Braves are titans during the regular season but are paper tigers during the playoffs. However, I would say they understand how to run a quality organization that has created a way for the team to be competitive year in and year out. Having the opportunity to win every year means winning pennants and World Series Championships are more likely than the ebb and flow experienced by other teams. The Braves do all this without the high payroll or necessarily being a destination team. The Yankees and Dodgers will always have appeal to players as destinations for players due to their location, history, and their deep pockets. However, on the field there is little that replaces winning and the Braves know how to win.