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Atlanta's New Deal: The Braves Young Contracts

Braves 3B Austin Riley; Photo via D. Benjamin Miller

The Atlanta Braves are making headlines, and not only for their on-field performance. In 2022, the Braves are signing young players to multi-year deals after having seen the beginnings of their careers. The Atlanta farm system is proving very valuable and pumping out sustainable big-league talent. After they took home yet another NL East title this season, more people began to respect the quality of baseball that is on the field. The list of stars that Atlanta has under team control for the next 3+ years is incredible, boasting names like Austin Riley, Michael Harris II, and Spencer Strider. These guys are under team control until 2033, 2032, and 2029 respectively. By putting their faith in guys like this, the Braves take on a lot of risk, but they also have the potential to dominate the NL East for years to come.

Austin Riley has been a staple in the Braves lineup after proving himself more than worthy in 2021. In that season, he slashed .303/.367/.531 with 107 RBIs and 33 home runs. In 2022, he improved in many different offensive categories, including a jump from a 136 wRC+ to a 142 wRC+. This year, he had more plate appearances and home runs (38), and he managed to raise his walk percentage (+ 0.3%) while lowering his strikeout percentage (- 1.2%). Fangraphs even has him producing 5.5 WAR, a 0.8 increase from last season. His Baseball Savant has more bright red than a Cincinnati Reds home game. He ranks in the 95th percentile and above in almost every important category, with the most impressive being 98th in xSLG, 97th in max exit velocity, and 96th in barrel percentage. When the Braves got a whiff of this sort of production, they jumped at the chance to secure Riley for the future.

Riley is perhaps the safest option that the Braves locked up when extending a lot of their stars in 2022. Even so, Austin only has 3 years of service time. At 25 years old, he signed a 10-year, $212 million contract. The layout of this contract is something that will remain consistent with the rest of the contracts listed in this article. Riley will be paid $15 million in 2023, $21 million in 2024, and then $22 million for 2025 through 2032, with a club option in 2033. The Braves have loaded the majority of the value on the back end of this contract, enabling them to keep their payroll lower as they look to lock up more guys. If the contract were to be a standard AAV signing, Riley would make $21.2 million for the next 10 years. By distributing the value in this way, Atlanta can cement their core and hopefully bring home more championships to fund the back half of this strategy.

Michael Harris II is just one of the two Rookie of the Year candidates that play in Atlanta. Harris is a very exciting young player. At 21 years old, he is a starter for his MLB squad after playing just 43 games in AA. Michael never went to AAA. His fast track to a major-league role was almost as surprising as his athletic ability. In just 114 games with the Braves, Harris was 1 home run shy of a 20/20 season (20 home runs and 20 stolen bases). He slashed .297/.339/.506, clocking him in at a 136 wRC+ and 4.8 fWAR. To go along with this impressive performance, Harris is one of the best defensive center fielders in the league. Baseball Savant has him in the 92nd percentile in outs above average (a defensive statistic) and 95th in both sprint speed and arm strength. To put things simply, Harris was a spark plug for Atlanta. He quickly became respected as a slugger and was even more recognized for his defensive prowess in the outfield. He will win a Gold Glove award in the future, if not this season. A downside to Harris’s game is his discipline at the plate. His strikeout percentage, walk percentage, and chase rate are all well below average (29th, 10th, and 7th percentiles respectively). Those rankings can only increase over time, however. As Harris ages, these parts of his game will surely be prioritized to fix. Even with these negatives, he is still an outstanding part of the already-impressive lineup in Atlanta.

When he signed his contract, Harris was the youngest player in the MLB. The Braves gave him an 8-year, $72 million contract after only seeing him play in 71 games. Once again, Atlanta was able to offer a potential star a lot of money while delaying paying a huge payroll hit until a later date. Harris will earn $5 million in 2023 and 2024, $8 million in 2025 and 2026, $9 million in 2027, $10 million in 2028 and 2029, and finally $12 million in 2030 (with 2 club options in 2031 and ‘32). The complexity of the numbers of this contract should not take away from the genius behind the strategy. By choosing to not pay their guys any “real” chunks of change until future seasons, the Braves can continue to grab stars for their benefit. The risk of this contract in particular cannot be ignored, as it is uncommon for the youngest player of any sport to sign a multi-year deal. There's always the threat of underperformance. Additionally, due to Harris' positional requirements, injury is a real possibility. However, if Michael Harris does end up injured in upcoming seasons, Atlanta will not be paying him the regular AAV of $9 million until 2027.

The other Rookie of the Year candidate in Atlanta is Spencer Strider. In a similar fashion to Harris, Strider had a rapid climb through Atlanta’s farm system. In 2021, he played at every level of the game. Strider pitched in just 22 games in the minors before making his MLB debut. Clearly, the Braves saw a lot of potential in Strider. After his 2022 campaign, both the Braves and Strider are not looking back. Spencer put up one of the best rookie pitching performances in Braves history. His ability to locate his fastball up in the zone paired with his velocity are parts of what makes his game great. In 31 games this season, Strider had an absurd 38.3% strikeout rate with just an 8.5% walk rate. The 23-year-old rookie had a 2.67 ERA with 20 games started and 202 strikeouts in 131.2 innings. In his best start of the year, Strider had 16 strikeouts against the Colorado Rockies. This set the Braves record for strikeouts in a game. Furthermore, his expected statistics and percentiles back up the success he had. Strider finds himself in the 97th percentile for xBA, 96th in xSLG, and 99th for strikeout percentage (duh). His already impressive ERA becomes more impressive when looking at his xERA, which comes in at 2.39 (0.28 points below his actual ERA). Strider is a strikeout machine. However, his success as a starter is not the most conventional. Strider only throws 2 pitches, those being a fastball and a slider. He was in the bullpen to start his career, which makes sense given his reliance on this pitch mix.

Strider’s success as a starter did not go unnoticed by the Braves. On October 10th, 2022, he signed the most recent of Atlanta's long list of extensions. This signing was much more justified, as it was based on a full season’s work, compared to 71 games by Harris. His deal is for $75 million over 6 years. Yet again, the distribution of money is loaded in the later years. This contract is the most glaring example of the Braves method in 2022. Strider will make $1 million in 2023 and 2024, $4 million in 2025, $20 million in 2026, and finishes with $22 million in 2027 and ‘28, along with a $22 million club option in ‘29. Rather than paying Strider $12.5 million a year, the Braves decided to let him continue to prove himself on the mound while paying him a partially uncommitted salary.

The Braves are doing something new with these contracts. Mega contracts with super high AAVs have stolen the show recently. The approach their front office has chosen to take, locking up young guys on contracts with lots of deferred money, is unique. The players under lengthy team control are not limited to the names in this article, either. The core of this Atlanta team is set in stone for a long time. The risk of these signings is certainly present, but if the majority of these signings prove to be worth it, the Braves will be set up extremely well to build a dynasty in the NL East.



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