How well will the Atlanta Braves long-term deals age?

Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Austin Riley have the two largest contracts on the team. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Austin Riley have the two largest contracts on the team. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) /

2022 was a season of extensions for the Atlanta Braves. Key contributors like Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Spencer Strider, and Michael Harris II received paydays, joining the likes of Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies in a group of players who will be Braves for the foreseeable future.

Atlanta Braves fans understand better than anyone that their GM Alex Anthopoulos loves his highly calculated and cost-effective deals. Unlike many other franchises, the business model of the Braves is one that often attempts to beget success without eclipsing the luxury tax.

Thus, it is extremely crucial that the Atlanta Braves get nearly every single one of their big-money extensions correct, and that the value justifies itself even as the players’ post-prime years arrive. However, with Braves CEO Terry McGuirk making the bold claim that he desires to achieve a top-5 payroll in 2023, it’s possible that long-term contract overpays may be inevitable, especially in regard to the upcoming 2022-23 free agent pool.

With that said, it’s important to look at some of the deals that the Braves have attached to their most prominent players and determine how they might look for the club going forward.

Which Atlanta Braves players have good long-term value contracts?

For whatever reason, Alex Anthopoulos has a special knack for extending players at below-market value rates. If you were to take to Twitter to attempt to find out how, you would find the wildest array of opinions on the matter you could think of as to how he has pulled this off. Regardless, Anthopoulos has managed to extend these players on anywhere from exceptional to fairly good long-term value deals:

Ozzie Albies

This one shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ozzie Albies might just have the most team-friendly contract in all of baseball. He was signed to a seven year, $35 million dollar contract in April of 2019 and has produced well above that clip ever since. He made $5 million this season and will make $7 million until 2025 when his contract ends. He also has two $7 million dollar club options in 2026 and 2027.

Albies, in seasons that he has played in full, averages 3.9 fWAR per season and is a consistent defender with a ton of range. Here are three other second basemen with their 2023 projected fWAR and their average annual earnings to show just how much value the Braves are getting from Albies’ deal:

  • Marcus Semien, Texas Rangers (4.1 fWAR, $25 million AAV)
  • DJ LeMahieu, New York Yankees (2.7 fWAR, $15 million AAV)
  • Jonathan Schoop, Detroit Tigers (1.3 fWAR, $7.5 million AAV)

No doubt, this particular deal is almost guaranteed to age well. Semien, a player of similar value, practically makes Albies’ entire 7-year earnings every year.

Ronald Acuña Jr.

The fact that the absolute steal that is Ronald Acuña’s extension is even being questioned after an injury-riddled two seasons is ridiculous. Besides Albies, Acuña might have the second best value-for-money contract in baseball and is just about a certainty to age well.

Acuña signed an eight-year, $100 million dollar extension mere days before Albies and will see him under contract until his age-28, possibly age-30 season if and when his two options for 2027 and 2028 are picked up. His contract comes out to $12.5 million annually, but he will make a healthy $17 million every season from 2023 to 2028.

It’s no secret that Acuña’s production dropped off this season due to his still-rehabilitating knee after ACL reconstruction surgery in 2021. All told, if it permanently affects his play, it could damper some of the insane value that the Braves are getting out of his contract. If you assume that Ronald will come back with a sturdier, healthier knee in 2023, then his offensive and defensive drop-off in 2022 look inconsequential.

Ronald’s best seasons, 2020 and 2021, saw him accrue 2.4 fWAR in 1/3 of a season, and 4.3 fWAR in half a season, along with a 158 and 157 wRC+. Extrapolated across a full season, this would see him around 7.2 fWAR and 8.6 fWAR, which firmly puts him in the stratosphere of $25-35 million AAV players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Mookie Betts.

Given that Ronald’s contract can cover up to four years of his theoretical free-agent years, the Braves will save a tremendous amount of money if he can return to form.

Matt Olson

Olson’s contract is slightly less cut-and-dry than that of Albies and Acuña’s. His deal is much closer to market price and he is a few years their senior at age 28. You’ll recall that Olson signed an eight year, $168 million dollar extension the day after being traded to the Atlanta Braves before the start of the 2022 season.

Olson is roughly a 3.9 career fWAR player and is projected to remain around that mark for the majority of the rest of his career. His peak, as we saw in 2021 with Oakland, is somewhere around 5.0 fWAR with Gold Glove defense and a 147 wRC+. Olson would have been free-agent eligible after next season, but instead, he’ll make roughly $21 million annually until 2029 and potentially $20 million in 2030.

Olson’s market value, if we’re judging based on the contracts handed out to Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt, is likely in the $24 million AAV range, meaning Olson is taking a slight discount to play for his hometown club. Generally, first basemen tend to age well due to the lack of physical demands that come with the position, so Olson’s defensive value should maintain well into his 30s.

It’s not to say that he’s risk-free – Albert Pujols signing a 10-year, $240 million dollar contract with the Angels in 2012 and immediately turning into a yearly average to abysmal player proves that. However, I would expect Olson to be good value down the stretch.

Which Atlanta Braves have long-term contracts with uncertain value?

Austin Riley

Given the raw numbers that Riley has produced over the last two seasons, it would probably be fair to say that him earning roughly $21 million yearly with his recent 10-year $212 million extension is fairly good value. When put in context to Nolan Arenado’s $31 million AAV at age 31 and Manny Machado’s $30 million AAV at age 30, this seems especially true.

However, it should be noted that perennial All-Stars Jose Ramirez and Alex Bregman are making similar to Riley with a roughly $20 million AAV on their deals. Both players are similar to Riley in terms of fWAR and wRC+, but both contracts are also widely considered to be of fantastic value.

What prevents Riley from entering the “certainly good value” category is his defense. Riley has, despite the occasional flashy play, been a net-negative defender. It’s possible he will see improvement in that regard, but given his body build and skill set, he will almost certainly continue to drop in defensive effectiveness and become a DH in his later years, making his value entirely dependent on offensively producing at a $21 million AAV clip.

If Riley can maintain his annual 4-5 fWAR production over the next half-decade, then the contract will have been well worth its value.

Raisel Iglesias

Unlike all of the other players listed so far, the Atlanta Braves inherited Igelsias’ contract from the Angels when they traded for him at the 2022 Trade Deadline. The 32-year-old relief pitcher is set to make an average of $16 million annually until his current deal expires in 2025.

In fact, the monetary amount and duration of Igelsias’ contract were the reasons that the Braves were able to acquire him for relatively cheap; they only had to part with SP Tucker Davidson and RP Jesse Chavez. This, normally, would indicate that Iglesias’ contract is one of bad value, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Iglesias was mind-bogglingly good after being acquired by Atlanta, posting a 0.34 ERA(!!), 1.52 FIP, stranding more than 91% of runners on base, and conceding zero home runs in 26.1 innings pitched. If Iglesias can emulate those numbers in any kind of similar capacity moving forward, $16 million AAV will be well worth his ability.

Age is not necessarily a problem for relievers, especially those who don’t throw exceptionally hard like Iglesias. However, relievers are inherently volatile; fluctuating on a year-by-year basis given the sometimes inconsistent nature of their game time and the effectiveness of their stuff. This makes Iglesias’ big contract, no matter how good he was in 2022, somewhat of a risk.

It should be noted, though, that Iglesias is particularly consistent. He only eclipsed a 2.80 ERA twice in his seven year MLB career.

Spencer Strider and Michael Harris II

These two are grouped together for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because their situations and contracts are similar. Harris, who set the league on fire since coming up on May 28th to the tune of 4.8 fWAR, 136 wRC+, 8 DRS, and 7 OAA, was rewarded with an 8-year, $72 million dollar contract – $9 million AAV.

Strider did much of the same, becoming a full-time starter on May 30th and rolling on to a monstrous 2.77 ERA, 13.84 K/9, 1.92 FIP,  .183 opponent average, and eventually becoming the fastest pitcher in history to reach 200 strikeouts. He was rewarded with a six year, $75 million dollar deal, an AAV of $12.5 million. It is currently the biggest deal ever rewarded to a rookie pitcher.

The particular nuance of these two deals is that they primarily buy out these two young stars’ pre-arbitration and arbitration years, paying them far more than what they would normally receive. Strider’s $47 million that he is set to be owed through his arbitration years will be the most ever earned by a pitcher. Harris will see $45 million before his free-agent years.

What Strider and Harris did in 2022 was nothing short of literally historic. It isn’t often a franchise can lay claim to two rookies who put together top-10 seasons at their positions in the same season. The issue with these contracts, then, is not the overall value if we are considering Strider and Harris’ raw potential.

If the two continue to improve, Harris earning $14.5 million AAV over his four free-agent years under contract and Strider earning $22 million AAV over his two free-agent years under contract will be a total steal.

However, at this stage, when the two are so early into their careers, and things – especially injuries – are unpredictable, a fall off from either one could result in a lot of money tied up for a long time.

Most of us will rightfully not be expecting such to happen, but it must be considered when evaluating the potential risks of the contracts as they continue to wind down.

Which Atlanta Braves have contracts with bad long-term value?

Thanks to the brilliance of GM Alex Anthopoulos, this section won’t have to be very long, but there is one name in particular that should be mentioned:

Marcell Ozuna

After putting together a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign that positioned him as just about the best player in baseball, Ozuna was rewarded with a 4-year, $65 million dollar deal. At the time, the risk was apparent for the then 29-year-old subpar fielding Ozuna. However, the extent of his fall from grace might have been hard to predict.

Ozuna has managed to complete his drastic shift from a 2.5 fWAR, 178 wRC+, .444 wOBA player in the 60-game 2020 to a -0.6 fWAR, 88 wRC+, .298 wOBA, -13 defensive value player in 2022. On top of an array of off-field issues such as domestic abuse and DUI charges, Ozuna’s numbers firmly place him as a bottom-30 regular player in the sport.

Needless to say, him making $16 million every year until the end of the 2024 season is a huge stain on the Atlanta Braves payroll even if he can manage to salvage himself into a league-average player.

There aren’t many desirable ways to get rid of Ozuna, and he may even hamper the Braves’ ability to spend in the free-agent market to an extent. It might be fair to consider this Alex Anthopoulos’ biggest miss in terms of contracts in his so far excellent Atlanta Braves career.

Fixing this issue will certainly be a conundrum, and the solution may have to involve swapping Ozuna with another player with a bad contract elsewhere. It will certainly be a topic to follow this offseason.

Next. No Atlanta Braves win a Silver Slugger Award. dark

Depending on how these players’ careers pan out, this list is due to age either quite well or terribly, as is the case with many things in the wonderful world of sports. Nonetheless, Atlanta Braves fans should feel confident in their GM’s ability to construct deals that will put the team in a great position to win. That much has been proven.