Six months ago the Braves made a decision that would heavily restrict their ability to do much else financially over the next year.
And now it might come back to bite them in the ass.
We all know the deal that went down in December, which was universally praised at the time. Matt Kemp went to the Dodgers for Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Charlie Culberson. It was an even money swap. The Braves would clear all four contracts in time for the gaudy 2018-2019 free agent class, and the Dodgers would get below the luxury tax threshold. An outfield spot was created for Ronald Acuna. Everyone wins.
Flash forward six months. The Braves are 42-29, 3 1⁄2 games ahead of the Nationals in the division race and perhaps the best story in baseball. They also have no money to spend, according to MLB’s Mark Feinsand:
”They can address a lot of areas, but they’re not going to be able to address a lot of areas,” the source said. “In a perfect world, they could use a bullpen guy, a front-of-the-rotation starter and a big bat, but they’re not going to have the dollars to fill all those spots. They also don’t want to use that much prospect capital to fill that many holes.” [...]
With the payroll nearing $120 million, Atlanta won’t be in position to acquire a bench player making $4 million-$5 million or a middle reliever earning $6 million. It’s also highly improbable that the Braves will be able to bring in a big-salary star, the source said, making Manny Machado an unlikely target.”
In short, the front office’s decision to aim for 2019 — at least financially — might end up holding back the 2018 team. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has said in radio interviews that ownership will not prevent him from acquiring talent at the deadline, although that sounds more and more like GM-speak by the day. Mark Bowman of MLB.com has echoed Feinsand’s statements that there won’t be much flexibility to spend.
We still have six weeks to go before the July 31 deadline, but as of now it seems likely the Braves won’t do anything major. If they do it will likely be for a younger, cheaper player that will require a much larger prospect return than that of a rental.
The Nationals acquired Kansas City closer Kelvin Herrera on Monday for a modest prospect return ... while assuming the remaining $4.4 million he’s owed this year. A similar Braves trade package would’ve included Dustin Peterson as the headlining prospect. For a team in need of bullpen reinforcements, it was the money — and not the prospects — that prevented Atlanta from making the deal.
Assuming there isn’t any money to spend, Anthopoulos and his front office mates shouldn’t bear all the blame. The salary swap in December was still the right trade to make. No one could have realistically expected the Braves to be 13 games over .500 as the All-Star Game nears. This team opened the season with an over-under of 74.5 wins; they would have to go 32-59 the rest of the way to not hit that mark.
The Braves’ future is brighter because of last December’s trade, but we might have to suffer the consequences in the meantime. Those consequences seem far worse now than anyone could have predicted six months ago.
This comes back to Liberty Media and their continued refusal to open the checkbooks to better the on-field product. Here’s hoping ownership doesn’t prevent this team from taking the next step in September and October.