How high will the Braves' payroll go?
It was a good week for the Atlanta Braves. They escaped the purgatory that was Time Warner – no longer just a piece of property at the end of a lot that no one wants. They now actually belong to someone, which may not seem like much, but considering how they were treated by the previous owners, it actually means everything.
But that wasn't all the good news. Liberty Media, who now holds the keys to Turner Field (even if they are not personally going to open the doors), are going to let the baseball people run the baseball team. Thank goodness. We could have had someone come in and pretended to be a baseball owner, but instead Liberty is wisely going to allow President Terry McGuirk and General Manager John Schuerholz do their jobs.
And then the comments from Liberty's CEO Greg Maffei to Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution this week must be the best news of all: McGuirk will have the flexibility to increase the payroll if needed. Liberty will not stand in the way if the Braves' President feels the club needs to raise the budget.
But what will McGuirk do? What will he recommend to this new Braves' Board of Directors that will be formed? Well let's look at what the Braves will have to deal with next season in terms of contracts to possibly gain a clue of McGuirk's plans.
Here are the guaranteed contracts already in the books for the 2008 season:
Tim Hudson -- $15.500
John Smoltz -- $14.000
Chipper Jones -- $12.333
Mike Hampton -- $8.100
Edgar Renteria -- $6.000
Brian McCann -- $.800
So that's a total of $56,730,000.
The Braves free agents after this season are Andruw Jones, Bob Wickman, Tanyon Sturtze, Mark Redman, Chris Woodward, and Willie Harris. The total amount earned by those six in 2007: $23.7 million.
There are seven Braves' players who will be eligible for arbitration this winter: Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Oscar Villarreal, Chad Paronto, Tyler Yates, Lance Cormier, and Pete Orr.
Let's assume the Braves offer arbitration to Gonzalez, Soriano, Paronto, and Yates – which would allow Villarreal, Cormier, and Orr to become free agents. Here are some projections for what those four could get in arbitration (or in negotiations):
Mike Gonzalez -- $3.200
Rafael Soriano -- $2.500
Chad Paronto -- $.700
Tyler Yates -- $.750
That increases the total for 2008 to $63,880,000 (for 10 players).
Then you have the young players whose contracts can be automatically renewed or negotiated. Here are some projections for those players and their 2008 salaries.
Jeff Francoeur -- $.600
Matt Diaz -- $.450
Chuck James -- $.425
Kyle Davies -- $.425
Macay McBride -- $.425
Scott Thorman -- $.425
Kelly Johnson -- $.425
Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- $.400
The total for those eight players is $3,575,000. That increases the potential total for 2008 to $67,455,000 (for 18 players).
So now let's see how much would be left (for seven players) if the Braves set the budget at certain levels:
1) If the budget remains at $80,000,000, that would leave $12,545,000 remaining.
2) If the budget climbs to $85,000,000, that would leave $17,545,000 remaining.
3) If the budget climbs to $90,000,000, that would leave $22,545,000 remaining.
4) If the budget climbs to $95,000,000, that would leave $27,545,000 remaining.
5) If the budget climbs to $100,000,000, that would leave $32,545,000 remaining.
So with those figures in mind, let's make a few obvious statements:
* The Mike Hampton contract tremendously harms this club, and thankfully the Braves will be out from under the deal after next season. But it does make his return (which is even more in doubt now than it was last winter) even more important. The Braves need some production for that $8.1 million that is going to be on the books.
* If Andruw Jones is going to be re-signed, the budget is going to have to at least be at $90,000,000. Let's say, just for argument's sake, that Andruw got a deal worth $17.5 million for next season. That would leave $5,045,000 remaining for six players under a $90 million dollar budget.
This obviously shows how difficult it is going to be for the team to keep Andruw Jones. With Jones currently struggling, he might be smart to accept a deal now around the $15 million per season mark. But his production is not even justifying his current contract, which makes the decision even more crucial for the Braves.
Should they simply set the budget at $90 million and allow Andruw to walk away? That would give them $22.545 million dollars to spend on seven players. They could probably get a very good outfielder and a decent starting pitcher with that money, along with having enough left for the remaining five players (some of whom would undoubtedly be rookies, therefore having small salaries).
Do not be surprised if the Braves do target a veteran player to replace Jones in center, if he does, in fact, leave. They will have some money to give a veteran, but maybe just not something over $10 million per season. Also, with Brandon Jones getting very close in Double-A Mississippi, his rookie salary would help out a great deal next season. Or if Jarrod Saltalamacchia takes over at first, Thorman might take over in left, which would be a small salary for that position.
So what will Terry McGuirk do? Well he's got to realize that the money assigned to Mike Hampton is an albatross for this club. That's around 10% of your current budget allocated to a player that you're not sure will ever play again. If the Braves had that extra $8 million to play with, it would be a lot easier to construct a roster that could remain competitive with the New York Mets.
Let's hope it's safe to expect the current budget to go up to around $90 million, which should allow this club to have some flexibility this winter, especially if Jones leaves as a free agent.
Liberty is giving McGuirk the power to increase the payroll, and while he may believe it doesn't take a huge budget to have a winner, he's had to see how difficult it's been for John Schuerholz the last few years to have the same type of team he had before. With Liberty giving him the power to increase the payroll, it would be a shock if McGuirk does not raise it - even 10% - to around the $90 million mark.
Let's at least hope so.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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