Memo to the Braves: $95 million doesn’t go as far as it did

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.

147 comments Add your comment

Coach (2011 or Bust)

February 22nd, 2010
1:50 am

First? oops.

Mark Bradley

February 22nd, 2010
2:13 am

First, Coach. Kudos.

Coach (2011 or Bust)

February 22nd, 2010
2:14 am

Bradley, you make a good argument for building from within, as in farm system and it appears that our Braves are doing just that. So the future appears bright but the present is questionable. As in Frank Wren spent a total of 136.5 million on Chipper, Lowe, Kawakami and Vazquez last off season, and had his purse strings cut. Wren invested 54 million in Hudson, Wagner, Saito, Cabrera, Diaz, Glaus, Moylan and Hinske, which is money spread around and spent much wiser the second time around.

That said, money and faceless corporate ownership have pushed the Braves fan base to the brink of insanity. The players are overpaid, all ownership cares about is profitability and we the fans keep taking it up the wazoo at the turnstiles. Such is life. Captain Ted doesn’t seem so crazy anymore now does he?

EPt Buzzer

February 22nd, 2010
2:14 am

Thanks, Mark. I don’t believe that Damon is worth any more than the Braves offered. However, you remind us of the point that a better owner would not leave our team to flail in the wind trying to pick up Johnny Damon at the last minute on the cheap. Until Liberty gets out of the baseball/tax shelter business our hopes are left to Wren’s “deft” moves.

Barry

February 22nd, 2010
2:22 am

Mark, your article is 100% correct. The Braves no longer do what it takes to win. Budget consciousness takes priority over winning and while you might fault Frank Wren’s moves, he is carrying out ownership’s wishes: field a competitive club for $95 million.

Of course, I blame YOU for this situation. I seem to remember an article about twelve or so years ago in which you bemoaned the Braves (and JS) taking advantage of small market clubs. Why did you put the famed “Bradley curse” on our club? We have been cursed with corporate ownership ever since.

Mark Bradley

February 22nd, 2010
2:26 am

I think the statute of limitations on Bradley Jinxes is 10 years, Barry.

Liberty Sucks

February 22nd, 2010
2:34 am

Is there any glimmer that someone like Ted Turner might purchase the team any time soon? We’re stuck where we’re at $ wise with good ole Liberty running things.

award6

February 22nd, 2010
2:39 am

Johnny Damon wasn’t signed by the Braves…and you’re mad?

Barry

February 22nd, 2010
2:45 am

Mark, do you know when Liberty’s agreement allows them to sell the Braves? For tax reasons, they aren’t allowed to sell the club for 2-3 years but I seem to remember they made a commitment to Bud Selig for a longer period. Of course, Selig has never forgiven Atlanta for taking the Braves from Milwaukee so he doesn’t mind saddling us with a cheap corporate ownership.

Mark Bradley

February 22nd, 2010
3:13 am

I seem to recall Libery Media had to hold the Braves through fall of 2010 to get the tax relief, but I’m not sure about that.

Conyers Braves Fan

February 22nd, 2010
3:52 am

Mark: You are right on with this article. As in every other business, you get what you pay for in MLB. Liberty Media is cheapskate with the $$$ it doles out to the Braves operation.
Your last post brings a glimer of hope….do you think Liberty will sell the Braves asap after this fall? I hope so.

Furman Bisher

February 22nd, 2010
5:13 am

Bradley, I’ve got an ooey-gooey mess going over here…

Has anybody seen my bedpan?!

Coach (still a tard in 2010)

February 22nd, 2010
5:16 am

I come here because the big boys laughed my butt off the O’Brien blog.

I’m still smarting that Bobby Cox turned down the chance to trade Damon Berryhill for Howard Johnson and Greg Norton!

HOWARD JOHNSON! I’M A SIMPLETON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Buckwheat Moore

February 22nd, 2010
5:16 am

Hey Bradley, amemba me?!

MitchC

February 22nd, 2010
5:25 am

Mark, I agree with your assessment. Think of it, though, the Braves line with payroll is not only now, but this has been in place since the winter of 2002, when we basically gave Millwood away, and let Glavine go the first time. JS at the time said “We will have an 80 mil payroll” (Or whatever the comparable number was then), and since then, both Time Warner and then Liberty, became more conscious about how much was leaving their checkbook, then how much was being produced on the field.

This Braves team won’t be a serious contender to go deep into the postseason, or to win anything big. The Phillies, Cards, and Dodgers are the classes of the National League. The best the Braves can hope for, if their pitching holds together, and they score a few runs with their old, patchwork lineup, is the wild card.

For the Braves to become a contender again, a few things have to happen. One, Liberty needs to increase the payroll to at least $120 mil. Two, the Phillies need to slip. (Not likely, with the talent they’ve stockpiled, at least for a few years), and three, Chipper needs to retire, to be able to spend the money we pay him on a more productive big hitter. Right now, we have a bunch of potential good pitchers in our rotation, and one dangerous hitter, Brian Mccann. That doesn’t cut it anymore in the business of baseball.

Then again, it could be worse, we could have Liberty sell the team to someone who would cut payroll even further. I dont know which is worse, tearing it all down and starting from scratch, and being pathetic for a few years like we were in the 80s, knowing we had Glavine, Smoltz, and Avery waiting in the wings, or… doing what John S said a few years ago, and remaining what he called “Competetive” which we were in 2007 and 2009, with a diminished payroll, with no serious plan to spend 15 mil a year, on the one big hitter that might be the difference, between just missing the Wild Card, and seriously competing with the Phillies for the NL East.

Greg

February 22nd, 2010
5:59 am

Mark, OF COURSE you are right. If Liberty can make money from the size of the TV audience (remember, the games are broadcast to sell an audience to advertisers, not to entertain fans), and the gate-take, while spending only $95 million on the team, they will do so. Liberty won’t change this plan until people stop watching/going to games.

bob

February 22nd, 2010
6:55 am

Have the Braves got a good 3b prospect coming up? With Chipper’s age and history of injuries I hope they have someone waiting in the wings. Haven’t heard anything about that position in years.

Marvin Mangrum

February 22nd, 2010
7:00 am

You know it aint rocket science! I would have let Lowe go, he is worthless. I would have done the same with KK he is moreso, and if he proves me wrong then good for him. But the Braves are no good. No third baseman. Short is good, second maybe. First nah! Left, nah, center, nah and right nah till the rookie comes up. Pitching, Hudson maybe 14 and 9, Jurrgens at 17 and 9 , and then Tommy Hansen 18 and 8. The Braves are no good. And then you sir! Trade for Johnny Damon! He can no longer hit, and now he is in the huge Detroit ballfield. Look here if you are a lefty and can no longer hit in New York , then where ya gonna hit. And the loss of steroids has hurt a # of ball players. Ahh humm! Check the Braves! But then, hell they got a bargain. It it were not sad it would be funny. And, Im sorry my mind aint what it was, if Mr Wren auditioned for the Braves as GM for the Orioles then why, why in hell does he have a job as GM for the Braves. That is about as retarted as you can get. And Im sick of you writing of these guys as wonder boys, they arent. Well, Im sorry, I am wondering if they can ever get a hit! Braves, RIP, RIP, RIP.

dap01

February 22nd, 2010
7:59 am

The $95 million does not seem like $95 million because the real payroll is closer to $84 million.

Why is there such a gray area?

Currently the Braves do not have an ownership that will result in a World Series win.

Sad.

Andrew

February 22nd, 2010
8:08 am

Mark I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from with this…are you blaming the Braves for not going to Liberty and asking for more money? Are you asking them to spend better (which would make some sense)? And as far as drafting they do just fine…except for that last “big” trade by old John that wiped out the top prospects

JeJe

February 22nd, 2010
8:17 am

FIRE MIKE WOODSON

Jesse Stone

February 22nd, 2010
8:21 am

I would rather have traded Lowe for a career minor leaguer than trading Vaz and eating Melky’s 3M

Jesse Stone

February 22nd, 2010
8:22 am

JeJe- Last night’s game was a bad loss. There’s no excuse for a team that has been together for so long to allow that to happen. That was Hewitt-like.

Mike

February 22nd, 2010
8:22 am

the Braves would have incentive to spend more if we fans made it out the ballpark a little more. The fanbase has proven that even if a world series contender is on the field, we won’t really come out in much bigger numbers than if the team is is just above .500. We can’t blame it all on ownership. The Yankees and Red Sox splurge on free agents but they still don’t lose money. They are still very profitable. I’m not sure how we can expect our ownership to lose money to keep up with them when it’s clear we won’t reward them for it by showing up.

TheAntiMe

February 22nd, 2010
8:31 am

We now have Liberty, and the Braves Championship hopes have death. (My sincere apologies to Patrick Henry.)

GT, in your dreams

February 22nd, 2010
8:31 am

45-42. Etched in stone.

lefty fielder

February 22nd, 2010
8:35 am

TheAntiMe
So the Braves have rewritten history . . . “Give me Liberty AND give me death.”
I like that.

Shane

February 22nd, 2010
8:36 am

eating Melky’s 3M

It amazes me how dumb most braves fans are. Do you people realize what a good ballplayer Cabrera is? He is 25 just coming into his prime and should help this team alot. The Braves arent eating anything.

If you dont believe me go to a Yankees blog. Talk to the people that have, you know, actually watched Melky play baseball. They hated the trade. Hated to give up on Cabrera.

And for that matter why would we want Johnny Damon anyway? He cant steal bases anymore, his arm stinks. In Turner field he might have hit 10hr’s this year. He basically would have put up Garret Anderson numbers only for more money. Ill take McClouth any day over Damon.

TheAntiMe

February 22nd, 2010
8:41 am

Thanks, lefty fielder. Unfortunately, it seems to me that – at least as far as World Championships go – that Liberty and Death are mutually inclusive.

JMF

February 22nd, 2010
8:44 am

Mark, good article. Liberty needs to understand that we are not happy with their cheap policy. Once the fans have tasted the success of the 90’s it is hard to go back to this new policy. Liberty sell to an owner that wants to win. There is more value for the team and fans when you produce champions. We want a champion.

TommyJack

February 22nd, 2010
8:46 am

Baseball, football, basketball…..The entire salary deal is absurd. Silly, actually.

NCbravesFAN

February 22nd, 2010
8:47 am

Mark Bradley, I wish you would take the next train out of town and never come back. I think you are perfect example of the negativity of Atlanta sports fans…oh that’s right you arent a fan of any Atlanta teams, you just recieve a paycheck from the local paper. In that case, please carry on, TMZ will be along soon to offer you a better deal and you can leave town. Oh…dont let the door hit ya in the A$$ on the way out!

NCbravesFAN

February 22nd, 2010
8:50 am

And by the way Mark….Im still waiting on a suggestion of what Wren could have done differently with his budget??? Give me a name, a possible deal, anything worth a darn besides your moaning and groaning.

WonderDawg

February 22nd, 2010
8:54 am

Sure are a lot of folks wanting to spend other people’s money here today. Kinda like the White House …

Vulcan

February 22nd, 2010
8:55 am

Milky Carerra is no great shakes. Never trust a Yankees fan.

Bobby Cox

February 22nd, 2010
9:00 am

Don’t worry fans, this is my last hurrah. I’m making you a promise that I’ll take this $95M team straight to the playoffs and …..well……lose in the first round.

Steve

February 22nd, 2010
9:01 am

We should have traded Chipper when we could for young prospects. You’ll agree in September when he’s played 25 games because of injuries. If we can’t be a large payroll club (and we can’t) then why not be like the Marlins who make it with young guys? Remember they beat us again last year.

Facts - 3,2,2,1 and 0

February 22nd, 2010
9:07 am

The problem is Frank Wren.
He did just like he did in Baltimore. He had money to spend but not like the Yankees and sunk the O’s for year by signing Belle.
We are sunk again with fat contracts for Lowe and Karakami.
I believe in keeping the guy (Vazquez) who actually was a good deal and performed at the level his pay called for. A bargain when you consider Lowe’s 15 mil.
We cannot compare though Wren defenders will what Vazquez does in MLB’s toughest devision.
However with Yankee runscoring, he may solve a lot of problems for them and win 15 to 20.

Yankees2010

February 22nd, 2010
9:12 am

Before the Braves came here, I was a Yankees fan growing up until age 14.
One championship.
Maybe I should have stayed with them.
I think they have improved on last year’s World Series Champion.
Should everything fall right and we win the NL pennant, the Yankees will crush us 4 to 0.

Asheville Dawg

February 22nd, 2010
9:13 am

To: Bud Selig

Re: Braves ownership

Corporate ownership is killing baseball here in at Atlanta. Something called Liberty Media owns our local franchise. They bought the old ball team for some federal tax advantage, which makes them retain ownership for several years. The group is run from secret mountain base in Colorado as I understand it. Their sole goal is to milk (bilk) the team for whatever obscure tax advantage it got, not to bring us the best the game has to offer.

The payroll is a respectable alleged $95 million, the middle of MLB pack. Just enough not to be Pirate like, but not enough to be serious contenders. They left part of the old regime to be in charge Terry Mcguirk (sp) John S. and gang. But the beancounters are really in charge.

Hopefully, the Thugs in suits will sell the Braves to some individual who cares about the community and the team so as to put a winner back on the field.

As it stands now, if the Braves could actually win a World Series, who would stand on the podium representing big Mr. Liberty Media? Sad, as a lifelong Braves fan we knew when Ted Turner was at a ballgame, but don’t have a clue who’s the head of the corporate conglomerate.

Sigh, hope things get better.

PMC

February 22nd, 2010
9:15 am

It is what it is. Corporately owned tax write offs aren’t really trying to put the best team on the field.

It doesn’t really matter what we care about, but they are devaluing their own investment by being so cheap.

PMC

February 22nd, 2010
9:16 am

The real problem is that Lowe and Kawakami aren’t worth the money they are printed on in the least.

collegeballfan

February 22nd, 2010
9:17 am

“…spend as much money as is necessary to compete…” – Terry McGuirk

It depends on what the definition of compete is……. Is playing .500 baseball competing? The Braves would say yes.

Hindsight is 20-20. Wren could have probably gotten Lowe off the payroll by agreeing to eat $5 million of his $15 million contract.
That way he could have kept Vazquez on the team this year. But he would not have had $5 million to pursue Damon or whoever. But he did not get Damon did he?

But,if we had not traded Vazques we would not have Vizcaino waiting in the minors. And Vizcaino is a prospect about whom I have seen nothing negative. I realize he is young. But remember, Smoltz was one year out of high school when the Braves traded their ace for him.

“It’s a puzzlement.”

TommyP

February 22nd, 2010
9:19 am

No team will make it to the Series with a payroll under $100 million? Are you kidding me?????

Every year we have about 3 of the 8 teams in the playoffs with relatively small payrolls. Once you get to the playoffs, it’s a crapshoot.

TheAntiMe

February 22nd, 2010
9:23 am

Alas, I think your complaining to the wrong man, Asheville Dawg. Bud Selig never spent a whole lot of money as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. Since he became Commissioner and now runs the Brewers (unofficially) by proxy through his daughter, I don’t think that has really changed.

BravesAreDone

February 22nd, 2010
9:24 am

They won’t really compete again until they get a new owner, it’s as simple as that.

Smoltz fan

February 22nd, 2010
9:24 am

I am wondering if the Smoltz trade of 1987 was blind luck.
Bobby Cox traded Doyle Alexander for him.
Scouts know what they are talking about?
I am looking at his rookie card.
Says undrafted free agent in 1985 so everyone passed on him with many chances.
He was 4-10 in AA with 88 Ks in 130 innings when we traded for him.
Little from this information that would indictae how good he would be.

TommyP

February 22nd, 2010
9:26 am

Weren’t they in the Wild Card race with 1 week to go last year? I call that competing.

Chop Chop

February 22nd, 2010
9:26 am

Wren’s sticking to the plan. I call it “Operation Cox Blocks.” You see, this is all a grand scheme to deprive Bobby of an opportunity to win big in his final season. Thar be method in Wren’s madness. Yippee.

Smoltz fan

February 22nd, 2010
9:27 am

Selig’s unwritten deal is he continues to keep the Brewers lowspending and MLB will continue to pay him 14 mil though he should have been fired for the steroids mess and somehow being the absolute last person to recognize it.