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Checking in on the Braves’ extension cornucopia

The Braves have seven strong performers locked up long-term.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

While the dust hasn’t settled on the 2022-2023 MLB offseason yet, it’s looking likely that when it does, we’ll have a pretty sizable jump in the cost of a win in free agency. This jump has been driven by a handful of teams, but as you’re probably well aware, not the Braves. Instead, Alex Anthopoulos and the rest of the Braves’ Front Office have taken a different approach, loading up their roster and budget with extensions for parts of their young core.

Given that for a baseball fan, winter is long and dreary, I figured it might be handy to throw some reference material together for the seven extensions that have a huge part of the Atlanta Braves’ core locked up for the next half-decade or so. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, and before I get into the tables, let’s quickly recap with bullets (and don’t worry, most of this is gonna be tables and not really text after these bullets):

  • Outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. signed an extension on April 2, 2019, a few days into his second season in the majors. The extension covers the eight-year period 2019-2026 and pays Acuña a total of $100 million, while the Braves hold club options for 2027 and 2028 at $17 million each. Given that 2019-2022 are behind us, Acuña is controlled for four to six more seasons.
  • A few days after his buddy signed long-term, second baseman Ozzie Albies signed an extension on April 11, 2019. The extension covers the seven-year period 2019-2025 and pays Albies a total of $35 million, while the Braves hold club options for 2026 and 2027 at $7 million each. Given that 2019-2022 are behind us, Albies is controlled for three to five more seasons.
  • First baseman Matt Olson signed an extension on March 15, 2022, a day after he was acquired in trade from Oakland. The extension covers the eight-year period 2022-2029 and pays Olson a total of $168 million, while the Braves hold a club option for 2030 for $20 million. Given that 2022 is behind us, Olson is controlled for either seven or eight more seasons.
  • Third baseman Austin Riley signed an extension on August 1, 2022, after rampaging through MLB pitching for much of July. The extension covers the ten-year period 2023-2032 and pays Riley a total of $212 million, while the Braves hold a club option for 2033 for $20 million. Riley is controlled for either these ten or eleven future seasons. This is currently the largest contract in Atlanta Braves history.
  • Following Riley’s megadeal, the Braves weren’t done, signing center fielder Michael Harris II long-term on August 16, 2022. The extension covers the eight-year period 2023-2030 and pays Harris a total of $72 million, with a $15 million club option for 2031 and a $20 million club option for 2032. Harris is controlled for these eight to ten future seasons.
  • The only pitcher of this superlative seven, Spencer Strider signed his extension on October 10, 2022. The extension covers the six-year period 2023-2028 and pays Strider a total of $75 million, with a $22 million club option for 2029. Strider is controlled for these six to seven future seasons.
  • Most recently, the Braves did the same thing for Olson as for his once-and-current teammate, catcher Sean Murphy. After trading for Murphy on December 12, 2022, the Braves extended him on December 27. The extension covers the six-year period 2023-2028 and pays Murphy a total of $73 million, with a $15 million club option for 2029. Murphy is controlled for these six to seven future seasons.

Alright, so with that text out of the way, let’s get to the tables. First, a look at the player-seasons that these seven extensions cover, from this point forward.

One thing that’s illuminated by the above: the extensions appear to be structured to some extent to minimize aging-related exposure. Four of the seven extensions have guarantees that end before a player’s age-30 season, and of the remainder, none have a guarantee beyond age 36. Relative to free agents, where paying for decline years at the backend is a built-in feature that allows for relatively moderate salaries in the front end, the Braves appear to have committed heavily to avoiding paying for serious decline by focusing on these extensions.

We can also talk about what the extensions have given the Braves in terms of team control. How many years of a player’s would-be free agent seasons have they secured?

You can see that there’s no real pattern here, and of course, given that the players signed their deals at various points in their team control horizons, there shouldn’t be. The main point is that the Braves get, should they want it, a minimum of two would-be free agent years from each deal, and in two cases, most of the remainder of a guy’s career (Olson and Riley).

What about financial outlay?

Overall, assuming about half the club options get picked up, the Braves are on the hook for about three-quarters of a billion associated with these extensions going forward. The big cash hits are in the 2026-2028 period, when Strider’s extension kicks into the $20 million range.

All the tables above have been about things we know; the contracts are inked. What we can’t know, and can only forecast, is what production the Braves have bought for themselves for this. To keep it simple, the table below shows the Steamer projections for 2023, with playing time as mapped by the Fangraphs Depth Charts feature, and applies a standard aging curve. Steamer isn’t the only projection out there, but we don’t have the 2023 ZiPS release for the Braves yet.

There are a lot of takeaways from this table alone — though the biggest one is probably that the point estimate nature of projections as presently communicated makes analyzing these extensions overly simplistic. For example, Strider and Harris both seem to warrant way longer extensions given the table above, but the reality is that while their point estimates are what they are, there’s a ton of uncertainty in their future performance given their limited track records. Separately, you can see that the Braves attempted to do what the free agent market really doesn’t let you do: have the contracts end before the player gets unproductive. Olson’s 2022 makes his extension look somewhat errant in this regard, and you could argue that Riley’s is a year too long, though said year is so far away that it’s hard to feel too confident about pounding the table that he should’ve only been paid for nine years rather than ten. The combination of Olson’s age and recent production does cast a somewhat pallid light on his extension, which is the second-biggest of the bunch. As we’ll see, it’s probably the most concerning of this array of deals.

One really huge, important point about the above table: especially these days, with the godforsaken expanded playoffs, the minimum bar for a good, contending team is probably like 37ish WAR. (Real strong teams are more like 47 WAR, but 37 gets you in the conversation.) With these seven extensions, and the Steamer/Fangraphs Depth Charts point estimates alone, the Braves project to have between 55 and 75 percent of the needed 37 WAR, just from these seven extended players, for the next six seasons. That doesn’t even count Kyle Wright, various other team-controlled members of the roster, and of course, any additions to round out the roster.

So, now that we’ve got one estimate of production, and we’ve got salary, we can convert these into surplus value by subtracting one from the other. That gives us a good sense of both the year-by-year value of each extension, as well as their total value over free agent spending. I’m valuing WAR at $9M a pop here; that’s both the “standard” figure, and for those that say that the observed price has been lower in recent history to this point, the high-dollar activity this offseason should probably push said observed price towards $9M/WAR, if not higher.

So, to be clear: Acuña? A hilarious amount of surplus value. Albies? Still a hilarious amount of surplus value. Harris, assuming he’s anywhere close to his point estimate over the duration of the extension? Ahahahahahahahahah, which is the sound of laughing all the way to the surplus value bank. Murphy? Also hilarious. Riley? Same. Strider? Again, if you have faith in the point estimate here, another coup for the team.

Olson, though... it kind of looks like a free agent contract, rather than the rest of these extensions. To be clear, while you don’t really want to see any negative, red-font stuff in the table above, this is using a static $9M/WAR figure. It is very possible that the price of WAR continues to grow such that Olson’s extension isn’t underwater towards the end. But even if it is, being less than $10 million underwater, right now, isn’t horrid. It’s not great, but it’s not as toxic as some of the overpays we routinely see in free agency. It’s still not great, though, even if it would’ve been nice to sign a shorter deal there. (And of course, if Olson plays better in 2023, the outlook for the rest of his deal might improve.)

It’d be interesting to do this exercise for basically every contract, and a large part of me wishes that the annual Fangraphs Trade Value series basically just did this so we had a reference list. But, even without said reference list, it’s safe to say that six of these seven deals are, right now, probably some of the most valuable assets in baseball...

...except we forgot one key aspect when tallying our numbers. (Well, we didn’t forget. No one forgot. I’m just being dramatic.) The reality is that the Braves controlled these guys for some amount of time already. They didn’t have to sign these extensions. They could’ve just held the guys for their team control years, and let them skedaddle afterwards. So, to consider the “true” benefit of the extension, we really need to see what it added on and above the normal team control process.

To do that, we need to go all the way to the first table, and lop off the free agent years. That looks like this:

And then, we need to assign salaries to those years. For this, I’m going to use the following rules of thumb: (1) pre-arb equals league minimum; (2) non-Super Twos are paid 25/40/60 percent of their production in Arb1/Arb2/Arb3, respectively; and, (3) Super Twos are paid 20/33/50/70 percent of their production in Arb1/Arb2/Arb3/Arb4, respectively. For players without arbitration payments already projected by MLB Trade Rumors and Matt Swartz, these percentages are directly applied to their estimated dollar value of production. For players with those projected arbitration payments, the percentages are used to scale up those projected payments as needed.

This gives us a way of calculating surplus value for just the team-controlled years, had no extensions been signed.

Alright, I’m not gonna make you scroll up to compare this to the above. Instead...

So, just to recap:

  • Acuña and Albies remain ridiculous slam-dunk deals. At every point, they have/are likely to continue to result in lower outlays than via the standard arbitration pay scale, their deals add additional years with lots of surplus, and there’s just nothing to complain about here. These are some of the most valuable contracts and players in baseball, and the fact that both have been active for a few year doesn’t change this too much given how crazy the entire contracts are.
  • The outlook for Harris has a lot of uncertainty, but if he’s the 4-win player he’s currently projected to be, his deal is also a gigantic coup for the Braves given its length. One thing to keep in mind is that it is possible that absent any extension, Harris would not earn much in his arbitration-eligible seasons if most of his value were derived from defense... however, his current deal is so modest, paying him less than $10 million in each would-be-arbitration-eligible season, and carrying a highest guaranteed salary of $12 million, that it’s again, basically a hilariously team-friendly deal, again. Harris basically has just not outright bust, and this deal is a winner, even relative to the control the Braves already had over him.
  • The Murphy extension more like your standard mid-team control extension, in that the Braves pay him a bit more upfront in exchange for more team control years, and of course, the overall guarantee that precludes cutting him if he falls off over the course of the deal. However, this is still a sizable win for the team, because they’re not paying him that much more upfront. Part of what limits the overall benefit to the team is that Murphy’s projected arbitration-eligible earnings are pitiful in comparison to his production, which makes it hard to offer him an extension that seriously beats the value of his team control years.
  • Olson’s extension, as discussed above, is the bête noire of this septet. As you can see from the table above, the real benefit right now is a couple of years in the near future where having Olson at his extension salary probably overperforms the market, but as he declines, that gets less likely to be true. As a result, the Braves may have been better off acquiring Olson and not extending him, provided they were able to pull off another swap for first base production after the 2023 season. (Or, signed him to a cheaper extension, though that may not have been possible.) In any case, the net hit of Olson’s extension is really only about the net gain of Murphy’s right now, and is driven by Olson’s 2023 — so if it’s all the same process that leads to these types of extensions, it’s hard to use the Olson deal as a paragon of how this approach is a bad one.
  • Like Murphy, the Riley extension is the generic extension-during-team-control structure, but super-sized. It pays Riley a lot more than he’d get upfront to lock in a bunch of free agent years. The net result isn’t a huge win, because of how long the deal is and how many age-related-decline years it includes, but it still looks better than not signing the deal.
  • And, lastly, you can say pretty much the same thing about Strider’s deal, even before you add all the injury risk and performance uncertainty challenges into the equation. Strider gets guaranteed quite a lot to lock in a couple of free agent seasons at most; the difference in payout between how his deal is structured, and how the Harris deal is structured, is striking.

Anyway, now that you have this framework, you can do all sort of things with it — change the assumptions, change the projections, go backwards in time, go forwards in time, whatever. Knock yourselves out!

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