If you haven’t noticed, the Atlanta Braves are extending players like no other team in baseball. Every couple of months it seems, Alex Anthopoulos and his guys are inking another agreement and tweeting out the official announcement before anyone has even a whisper of it. The deals completed include Ronald Acuna Jr, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Michael Harris II, Sean Murphy and Spencer Strider. Seven long-term extensions completed by the same front office regime for the same core group of players.
It’s unheard-of in baseball. Teams are usually happy if they lock up a couple of their core players long-term, three if they’re really lucky. The Braves have almost their entire position player group locked into extensions. Even with Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson leaving for free agency the last two years, the Braves have at least five years of team control for the players currently at C, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, RF, and CF. And this after they've already spent the last five years winning five division titles, a pennant, and a World Series. Coming out of a painful three-year rebuild, there’s really no other way to say it, the Braves have built a Major League powerhouse.
One notable part of all those extensions however, is only one of them is a pitcher. Spencer Strider’s 6-year/$75-million dollar contract represents the only long-term deal the Anthopoulos’ Braves have given out to a non-position player. And that's an important factor when looking at Max Fried’s upcoming contract situation versus the one’s the Braves just went through with Freeman and Swanson.
The presence of so many other plus position players on the team gave, and still gives, the Braves a tremendous amount of freedom and leverage with any other position player they're negotiating with. They don’t have to have any one guy on any one deal directly because they already have so many good players under team-control for so long. They’re constantly negotiating from a place of strength on that side of the ball.
That’s not the case with starting pitching. The Braves aren’t dealing from the same place of strength on that side of the ball. The 2023 rotation is going to be good. Really good. With Fried, Strider, Kyle Wright, Charlie Morton and host of fifth starter options, including Mike Soroka and Bryce Elder, they have high-upside and depth. But after 2023, Morton is a free agent. After 2024, Fried and Soroka are free agents, at least as things stand now. The Braves have, at minimum, half-a-decade with this core of position players and probably more. But with the current core of starting pitching, only 2023 and 2024 are currently guaranteed.
This is why keeping Fried is so much more important than Freddie Freeman or Dansby Swanson. The ability to acquire or internally promote replacements helped ease the pain of both of their departures, as did the already impressive stable of everyday players already on the team. But losing Max Fried would hurt so much worse. You can't acquire number one starters, not unless you want to pay $30 or $40 million per year in free agency or deal away half your farm in a trade. And with so much uncertainty with long-term rotation pieces on the team as is, getting a deal done with Fried would alleviate so much pressure. Knowing you're starting every year with at least Fried-Strider-Wright makes filling out the rest of the rotation that much easier.
And, of course, there’s risk. Pitchers don’t get extensions at the same rate position players do because they are so much riskier. Pitcher generally get hurt more, or just lose effectiveness out of nowhere and teams stay away from long deals with them any time they can. Any extension for Fried specifically is going to take place almost exclusively in his 30s and he’s already had Tommy John surgery once in his professional career. There is risk.
But losing him is full of risk too. Who are you going to replace him with if he walks? How much harder is filling out the entire rotation going to be without him? Having a bunch of really good position players already locked in long-term made losing Freeman and Swanson easier to cover up. As did having ready-made replacements to immediately turn to. Those same advantages don’t exist at the top of the rotation. And that makes Max Fried the most important extension candidate of the last few seasons.