Guest Writer: Andy Simms
Is the Braves’ window opening or closing… or both?
One of the most difficult decisions a GM has to make is when to “go for it.” Roster construction is an art form, and manipulation of nuances like minor league options, Rule 5 Draft eligibility, Super Two considerations and the dreaded “extra year of control” scenarios is often just short of practical magic. Getting the most value out of the assets in your organization is the life-blood of small and mid-market teams, and though Atlanta is best described as a large media market, the terrible TV deal and the lackluster fan support of the team puts the Braves in a mid-market spending profile. For Alex Anthopoulos his job just got even more complicated, however. Now he finds himself with the additional consideration of how to juggle all the aforementioned responsibilities while turning the Braves into a legitimate N.L. East and, ultimately, World Series contender. This the time for AA to make a franchise-altering decision: defining “the window.”
If not now, when?
Six weeks after being eliminated from the playoffs, Anthopoulos found himself at a table in front of reporters discussing the recent additions of Brian McCann and Josh Donaldson to the Braves roster. At the tale end of the press conference the GM finally told the world what Braves’ fans have longed to hear:
Signing Donaldson to the largest average annual value contract in team history , 1 year $23M, seemed to be an indication that the rebuild was indeed over and the Braves were entering into the period known as the “window,” that blissful time when teams push all of their chips to the center of the table and do everything necessary to win championships. Money is spent, prospects are traded, and the names of the players become more easily recognized to the casual fan base. Competitive windows are tricky things, though, especially for small and mid-market teams. They tend to be shorter-lived and more volatile, relying on youthful players who are making league minimum salaries and veterans trying to get one or two more seasons out of their worn out bodies. There is usually always a core of players, though, that end up defining the window. For the Braves, in reality, there is only one: Freddie Freeman.
Defining the Window
A few weeks prior to the opening of Spring Training in 2014, the Braves made huge news. All winter the debate raged over whether Freeman or Jason Heyward would end up being the center piece of the team moving forward, and on February 4th, 2014, the Braves announced their decision. Freddie Freeman signed an 8 year, $135M contract extension, the longest in Braves history, and cemented himself in the middle of the lineup through the 2021 season. Jason Heyward was traded to the Cubs the following offseason, signaling the beginning of what would become a three year rebuild. Throughout that rebuild process, former GM John Coppolella appeared to make deals to acquire players that would support the Freeman contract. He traded for Mike Foltynewicz, a pitcher whose MLB clock was already running and whose arbitration years would expire the same season as Freeman’s contract. He signed Ender Inciarte to a contract extension through 2022, ensuring the gold glove centerfielder would be roaming the outfield for the Braves and hopefully getting on base ahead of Freeman on a regular basis.
These are moves that teams rarely make during a rebuild. Most often teams shed all of their players under contract and try to acquire as many prospects with zero MLB time as possible so that they aren’t locked into a situation where their hand is forced down the road by arbitration and free agency. Coppolella, however, viewed the Braves window as defined by Freddie Freeman’s contract. He had no reservations in making deals for players that might only be with the club through 2023 because he saw the most logical arc of contention for the club being the final 4 years of Freddie’s contract. He would still be in his prime during those years, and surrounding him with solid pitching and sound defense would make it easier to pull the trigger on the necessary moves at the right time to make a run at a World Series or two.
Is the window already closing?
Due to the emergence of Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Ozzie Albies, there is reason to believe that 2021 will not mark the end of the Braves’ window of contention. There will be significant subtractions from our roster that will have to be addressed however. By the end of the 2022 season the Braves, barring contract extensions, will have to replace Julio Teheran, Freddie Freeman, Mike Foltynewicz and Charlie Culberson. The following season has Inciarte and Dansby Swanson departing for free agency. That leaves the Braves desperately hoping that their young core can reboot the franchise and remain competitive beyond 2022. Names like Christian Pache, William Contreras, Ian Anderson and Drew Waters are going to have to become more than just hot prospects; it will be critical that they become stalwarts on the Braves roster.
The fact that Donaldson only received a one year deal and the apparent reluctance to sign any free agents to longer than a two year deal seems to signal that Anthopoulos feels like our window is not limited to the length of Freeman’s contract. In fact, it appears that he is completely willing to let the success or failure of the Braves team rest completely on the shoulders of his young core of players and prospects in the minors, augmented by veteran leadership and rebound seasons.
Here’s hoping that we don’t look back on these next 3 years at the end of Freeman’s contract and wish for what could have been instead of the wasted prime of Atlanta’s future Hall of Famer.
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