Extensions indicate Atlanta Braves playing for keeps

Atlanta Braves Freddie Freeman
Freddie Freeman is one a handful of Braves who inked a long-term deal. (Getty Images)

Can you feel that buzz in the air?

Players have reported, workouts have started and a new baseball season is under way. It’s about time, if you ask me. Fantasy teams will be drafted soon, and we’ll get a good look at all our favorite players as spring training games begin on Feb. 25.

As you might recall from my last post, I wondered aloud about the collective youth of the Atlanta Braves being more of a con than a pro. It was tongue in cheek, friends! Youth is what is going to bring the Braves many more years of winning seasons, and no one is more aware of that than general manager Frank Wren.

Less than a week ago, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel were all on their way to the dreaded arbitration hearing. For a moment, it seemed like all three were eventually headed the way of so many valued Atlanta Braves players: to other teams. Remember when Brian McCann was the future of this team? I do, but doing it in pinstripes wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Obviously, things change, and keeping McCann just didn’t end up in the cards.

What’s different this time around is Wren finally has the pieces he’s needed to build the core of this team. Heyward received a two-year deal, which doesn’t seem like much, but I think the big concern is whether Heyward’s trend of injury-plagued seasons (whether his fault or not) is going to continue as the norm or if he can perform the way he’s been projected to for so long. My guess is, if he has a great 2014 season, he’ll get an extension for much longer.

On the same day, Wren cut another deal with Freeman, a monster eight-year deal worth $135 million. This means the 24-year-old Freeman will spend his prime years holding down first base and swinging a hot bat for the Atlanta Braves. This arguably makes him the new face of the franchise for now, and he may end up being the leader everyone seems to think this team doesn’t have right now.

Then, with less than 24 hours before Kimbrel went to his hearing, he was offered a four-year, $42 million deal, which he took. He says he was influenced by the previous deals and Wren’s obvious commitment to making this team a contender for a long time to come. Now, some argue that big contracts to closers are a waste of money, but not many people have had guys as automatic as Kimbrel. This way, the Braves get him through his first year of free agency, with an option for the next, at a better rate than if he went all the way through arbitration.

But wait, there’s more!

In the meantime, Wren brought a six-year deal to the table for Julio Teheran, who was happy to take the $32.4 million contract.

Are you seeing the shape develop here? Wren is beginning to build this team up from a core of young talent that will be around for a while. It stands to reason that contracts for Andrelton Simmons, and either Mike Minor or Kris Medlen (maybe both!) won’t be far behind. This leaves the Braves with only a few spots to lock down for the next five or so years.

Some people have called this the “Rays-ification” or that the Braves are following the Hart Doctrine, but no matter what you call it, they’re following a path that is making the most of their limited payroll. It could be that owners Liberty Media are opening their checkbooks a little wider with the new stadium on the horizon. Or it might just be that the Braves are getting smart with how they spend the money.

Back in 2000, the Atlanta Braves’ $86 million payroll ranked third in all of baseball. With some fluctuation since then, their $90 million in 2013 ranked 16th. So, while they’ve more or less maintained the same spending, the teams around them have upped theirs dramatically. This is partially because many teams have inked big TV deals, while the Braves are on the lower end of that spectrum.

And let’s not forget the burns Braves fans have endured over the years: Mark Teixiera, Derek Lowe, Mike Hampton, Dan Uggla and potentially B.J. Upton.

But all of those were outside acquisitions. The recent extensions are homegrown talent. These are young guys headed into their prime. This isn’t an attempt to plug a hole, this is how the future of this team is going to look.

Now I realize some may be disappointed there is no veteran ace coming to lock down the rotation. But keep in mind the list of available guys who meet that criteria wasn’t exactly flush. Plus, there’s the very real possibility someone already on this staff may be headed in that direction. Aces aren’t necessarily born, and very few are that good right from the start.

What this means, Atlanta Braves fans, is the team is building a strong core that will anchor it for the near future. It also means we probably can expect a few more contracts before this is all said and done. Wren and his associates are investing heavily in this team’s future and it begins here. These are good signs, friends.

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