Will the Braves be able to lock up their core?

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The Braves’ winter full of arbitration cases was an indication of the problems lurking just beyond the horizon — their core of young, talented players is starting to get very expensive, and inching ever closer to free agency. The organization has been among the more thrifty in Major League Baseball lately, keeping a payroll below $100 million in each of the last five seasons. As Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal Constitution writes, it will be tough for the Braves to lock up their core players. Brian McCann received the Braves’ last contract extension: a six-year, $26.8 million extension signed in March 2007.

The Braves had 14 arbitration eligible players this off-season. They tendered contracts to 11 of them:

  • SP Kris Medlen, $5.8 million (second year of arbitration eligibility)
  • 3B Chris Johnson, $4.75 million (first year)
  • SP Mike Minor, $3.85 million (first year)
  • RP Jonny Venters, $1.625 million (second year)
  • RP Jordan Walden, $1.49 million (first year)
  • SP Brandon Beachy, $1.45 million (first year)
  • OF Jordan Schafer, $1.09 million (first year)
  • IF Ramiro Pena, $0.55 million (first year)

They will go to arbitration hearings with outfielder Jason Heyward (second year of arbitration eligibility), first baseman Freddie Freeman (first year), and closer Craig Kimbrel (first year). The midpoint between the salary figures submitted by the Braves and both Freeman and Heyward is around $5 million, while it’s around $7 million for Kimbrel.

The more Sabermetrically-inclined in the Braves blogosphere have suggested that the Braves should trade Kimbrel, so that would be one solution to one dilemma. Locking up Heyward, Freeman, Medlen, Minor, and Beachy will be trickier. The longer the Braves wait, the more expensive their core becomes and the more likely it becomes that they will watch their key players eventually walk away into free agency. The Braves are among the best in the business at recognizing and developing talent, but even they can’t count on consistently churning out Freemans, Minors, and Heywards to replace outgoing talent.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.