Johnny Damon has signed with Detroit. This should surprise no one, least of all us Atlantans. Damon will make $8 million for one season’s work, and ESPN.com’s Buster Olney reports that none of the money is deferred.
The Braves made an overture toward Damon. They offered rather less than $8 million, with some of the money believed to be deferred. This is the way the Braves have come to operate.
They traded Javier Vazquez because he was due to make $11.5 million. They signed Troy Glaus because he was available and has a history of being productive, but also because he came cheap. They re-upped Tim Hudson because he seems healthy, yes, but also because he offered a hometown discount.
If we credit the Braves for resolutely holding their payroll under $100 million — Baseball Prospectus projects it at $95 million for this season, though other estimates put it around at $90 million or less — we must also debit them for slipping further behind the ol’ curve. Times change, and $95 million doesn’t go as far as it once did. According to John Perrotto of BP (link requires registration), that figure would put the Braves 13th-highest among 30 big-league teams.
And here’s the rub: The Braves’ payroll on Opening Day 2000 was similarly $95 million, according to Baseball Chronology. That put them second to the Yankees. But it’s a decade later and the Braves are still trying to function the way they did when they were winning their division every year, and that’s one reason they haven’t won their division since 2005.
Can you reasonably expect to be a serious contender in the year 2010 while spending roughly as much as you did 10 years ago? Of the eight teams that qualified for the 2009 postseason, seven are projected to outspend the Braves. (Colorado is the exception.) Even the Minnesota Twins, long a paradigm of small-market fiscal sanity, figure to spend more on personnel in 2010.
Every year Braves chairman Terry McGuirk issues his boilerplate assertion that Liberty Media will spend as much as is necessary to compete, but with every year it becomes more apparent the money just isn’t there, at least not to buy ballplayers. There was no reason to trade Vazquez other than money, and Vazquez became the guy to go only because Frank Wren couldn’t find someone willing to take Derek Lowe for $15 million.
No, you can’t just buy yourselves a World Series title. If you could, the Yankees would have won every year for a decade. But there hasn’t been a real small-market champion since Florida in 2003, and the expanse between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow. When the mid-market Cardinals — they were mid-market then, if not now — won in 2006, their $88 million payroll put them 11th; today they’d be 16th.
And here’s the worst part: Wren has demonstrated no Billy Beane-like facility for winning big on a budget. (Billy Beane hasn’t lately, either.) In Wren’s one season as general manager of the Orioles, he signed Albert Belle to the biggest contract in franchise history. In his second offseason as Braves GM, he signed Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami for an aggregate $83 million over four seasons and seemed to develop buyer’s remorse overnight.
To be fair, even John Schuerholz needed a big budget to amass all those first-place finishes. And last month Schuerholz told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that the Braves’ 2010 payroll would be roughly the same as in 2009, the president’s point being that his club had bravely resisted the urge to cut costs. But when, if ever, will it increase them? And if, as seems manifestly clear, the Braves are under orders to spend only so much, why won’t they say exactly how much?
Maybe this season will be different. Maybe Wren will stand revealed as the Value King of baseball. But will coupon-clipping cut it in it a division where the Phillies and the Mets are spending $140 million apiece? Will we ever see another sub-$100-million team in the Fall Classic?
At last check, Scott Boras hasn’t opened a kiosk at Costco. If he does, we know who’ll be first in line.