The Atlanta Braves are changing the face of long-term contracts in baseball. In the last three weeks, they’ve signed a core group of five players under the age of 25 to multi-year contracts:
- SS Andrelton Simmons, 24 years old – 7 years
- 1B Freddie Freeman (24) – 8 years
- SP Julio Teheran (23) – 6 years
- Closer Craig Kimbrel (25) – 4 years
- OF Jason Heyward (24) – 2 years
We are very used to hearing about the long, high dollar-value contracts given to free agents. But how often do you hear about a 23-year old signing a 6-year deal? It makes so much sense when compared to trying to outbid other teams for over-30 all-stars, which produces results like a backloaded 10-year contract for a 31-year old Albert Pujols.
The difference? The Braves are paying for future potential, not for what has happened in the past. Does that increase their risk factor? It could. They’re paying for production at a level higher than the players have exhibited so far. But other long-term deals can carry even greater risk. Who would you rather have for the next 8 years, the 34-year old Pujols for $212 million, or the 24-year old Freeman for $135 mil? Does anyone, even Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, think Pujols will be worth 30 million dollars at age 41?
The Braves strategy isn’t entirely new. Indeed, the San Diego Padres employed a similar strategy in March 2012 when they signed fleet Center Fielder Cameron Maybin to a 5-year deal and Catcher Nick Hundley to a 3-year pact. There are some differences between what the Padres did and what the Braves are doing, though. Primary is the level of talent of the players they’re locking up. The former Padres ownership, which signed these deals, seemingly rewarded Maybin and Hundley for providing solid defense and short bursts of good offensive production. The players weren’t particularly well-established when they signed, and indeed saw drops in production after signing their new deals. The Braves, on the other hand, signed three players who finished in the top 15 in MVP voting last year (Freeman, Simmons, Kimbrel), and a starter that they view as their future ace in Teheran, who went 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA in his rookie year in 2013.
But the talent level of the current crop of young Padres surpasses the Maybin/Hundley level of talent, although they may be a year or two behind the Braves in seeing how this talent performs at the major-league level. By the end of this year, players like Jedd Gyorko and Andrew Cashner should be showing their major-league chops. And with top prospects like Max Fried, Matt Wisler and Austin Hedges only a couple of years away, Ron Fowler and Josh Byrnes should be paying very close attention to what the Braves are doing.
With the Padres unlikely to be in the top 10 teams in terms of player-spending in the near future (despite Fowler’s very welcome comments about spending this week), it would be great to see them employ this same strategy, and lock up their best young players for their prime production years.