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Starting Nine: Another ‘pillar’ in place, Braves positioned to be force

Michael Harris II’s extension gives Atlanta core in place well into end of decade

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins
Michael Harris’ eight-year, $72 million deal includes two option years that can push the contract’s total value to $102 million.
Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

ATLANTA — “Life moves fast,” Michael Harris II said, the Atlanta Braves 21-year-old phenom flanked by a man who most certainly was operating with a swiftness of his own.

After a mere 71 games, general manager Alex Anthopoulos had signed Harris to an eight-year, $72 million extension, which includes two years of extensions that could push it to 10 years and $102 million.

“I think it’s important when we have a chance to have players that it means something to be a Brave, and it’s important for them to be here,” Anthopoulos said Wednesday. “He just played so well and knowing what it meant for him to be here, and obviously to have (in) our core”.

It’s another masterstroke, the makings of another coup in a tenure defined by them.

What began with Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2019 followed with Ozzie Albies, then in the span of six months this season, has included Matt Olson, Austin Riley and, now Harris. A core, cornerstones all together through 2027, with the longest deal running into the fall of 2033, and all done at club-friendly terms.

“The No. 1 thing I worry about is being sustainable and being competitive,” Anthopoulos said. “The most important thing is how do we have a sustainable long-term team. It’s important that guys want to stay here, and I think if we can become one of the best places to play, then obviously we’ll be able to keep players, we’ll be able to sign players.”

With Harris joining Acuña (eight years, $100 million), Albies (seven years, $35 million), Olson (eight years, $168 million) and Riley (10 years, $212 million), the Braves’ foundation represents $587 million, and with option years, reaches a maximum of $695 million.

Not a single contract includes an average annual value that ranks in the top 40 among the largest active pacts in the majors, even combined, those five Braves players’ AAV ($68.7) is less than the Mets are paying Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom this season ($79.3 million).

With speculation whether Juan Soto could become the sport’s first $500-million man, Atlanta has secured five players stretching into the end of this decade — and three into the next — at a mere $87 million more.

“We have to make sure we build a team, not just one or two great players or three or four,” Anthopoulos said. “We need to put a winning product on the field, and it is a balance to make it all fit and still have a deep club. I think the one thing you see with our sport, is it’s not the NBA. You can’t just go get a LeBron James and immediately become a contender. .... If we can keep these guys and the fanbase can identify with these guys and they care and want to be here, we’re going to try to do it.”

But is it really that simple?

Surely there’s some wizardry involved. Some spell has to be cast in convincing a collection of young stars to put off free agency on contracts considered — by everyone watching the defending World Series champions make sure they’ll be in contention to make that titles with an S — to be well below market value.

“They’re just really good at getting good guys to stay here, because a lot of people want to play here and you have a great group of guys that want to play with each other,” Harris said. “I feel it just helps with players making decisions long term that actually want to be here and play baseball here.”

OK, maybe Anthopoulos didn’t actually attend Hogwarts. He’s just helped cultivate a culture and an environment they just don’t want to leave.

“You just continue to flood the organization with quality people, whether that’s support staff, whether that’s players ... flood it, flood it, flood it, and that makes it a great environment,” the GM said. “I don’t think there’s anything more than that. I hear that all the time in sports ‘Create culture. Create culture.’ I don’t think you do it that way. I think you have the right individuals in the organization ... and that creates it.”

Harris has been spectacular, leading all National League rookie position players with 2.7 fWAR, with 126 wRC+ an .825 OPS, 12 homers, 13 steals and he’s in the top 10 in outs above average despite not showing up until late May.

At this point in the season, maybe the only player that can keep him from winning NL Rookie of the Year is Harris’ own teammate, Spencer Strider, the majors’ rookie fWAR leader (3.3).

Harris looks like the real deal, one who dreamed of being a Brave. A product of Stockbridge (Ga.) High School, he — as Anthopoulos recounted — showed up at spring training wearing Atlanta Falcons and Hawks jerseys.

“It’s surreal,” Harris said. “Just growing up being a fan of all the Atlanta, to actually just be here and have a deal in Atlanta where I don’t have to go anywhere. Being here my whole life, I don’t know. I don’t know how to feel, honestly.”

Signing him now comes with its inherent risks, for both sides. The number of players we’ve seen come up, be ultra-successful early and then struggle to maintain that level of production is a very long list. From that end, Harris gets security. The Braves, meanwhile, are banking on this just being the beginning, making that AAV look like a steal years from now.

Of course, the Braves have been down this road before. In February 2014, they launched into a flurry of signings, wrapping up Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran. Freeman was the only one who played out the entirety of his deal, with the club declining Teheran’s option year in 2019.

But this current core represents clear cost certainty, Anthopoulos’ standard operating procedure.

It wasn’t that way during his six seasons in his first stint heading up a front office with the Blue Jays, Anthopoulos was known for making bold, aggressive trades. He’d acquired a laundry list of veterans in moves for Roy Halladay, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Josh Donaldson, David Price, Jose Reyes, and Troy Tulowitzki in blockbuster deals, shipping out prospects like Noah Syndergaard, Travis d’Arnaud, Jeff Hoffman, and Dan Norris in the process.

The aggressiveness remains, but it’s come in the form of signing Acuña to what was a record for a player without a year of service time — before the 11-year, $182 million deal Wander Franco inked with the Rays last November eclipsed it — securing his close friend Albies nine days later, locking up Olson hours after trading for him and giving Riley the most lucrative deal in franchise history.

And now, Harris.

“I think we’re telling the fans; we’re telling the guys in the clubhouse he’s a core guy now,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s a pillar.”

The pillar recounted one of his earliest Braves memories, when he played whiffle ball in the outfield at Turner Field when he was six years old. To go from that to sitting at a podium with a contract that stretches into his age-31 season would have come with a rush of emotions, right?

“Honestly, I don’t think I even have emotions,” Harris quipped. “Like, when I was drafted, I was just staring at the TV, and everyone was running around the living room and I’m just the one person standing there, no emotions. Maybe I’ll notice it later, but I don’t really show emotions in the moment. I’m always going to feel great about it, but I might not show it.”

The elephant wasn’t literally in the room during Harris’ time at the podium, though the topic did turn to one as the Braves continue to secure their future.

Dansby Swanson, in the midst of a career year, sits two months from free agency. Like Acuña, Albies, Harris and Riley, he debuted a Brave. Like Harris and Olson, he’s an Atlanta-area native, one that’s poised to join a star-studded free agent class of shortstops with Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner and Carlos Correa, should he opt out of his deal. Per Spotrac, the 28-year-old Swanson has a market value of $22.1 million.

Asked the status of negotiations to keep the first-time All-Star home, Anthopoulos admitted he was offering a non-answer by saying “It’s the standard answer. We want to keep all these guys.”

Swanson addressed the situation thusly: “(Anthopoulos)’s obviously done a great job of being able to piece together just vital parts of the team to be able to keep everyone together, to be good for a long time.”

There’s no denying that. Beyond those core position players, Max Fried — himself an extension candidate — has two more years of control, as does A.J. Minter. Meanwhile, the likes of Ian Anderson, William Contreras, Vaughn Grissom, Spencer Strider, and Kyle Wright won’t be eligible for free agency until 2026.

Like the young stars they keep locking up, the Braves aren’t going anywhere.

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