Braves see commitment as road to success
Atlanta writes its future with long-term deals for Freeman, Kimbrel, Heyward, Teheran
In the early years of free agency, the late Joe Burke, general manager of the Kansas City Royals, was ahead of the curve in signing his key young players to long-term contracts, keeping together the core of a team that advanced to the postseason seven times in the 10 seasons from 1976-85.
John Schuerholz, an understudy of Burke who replaced him as GM for the last three of those playoff seasons who then moved on to Atlanta, where he is now the club president, has not forgotten the lessons he learned.
In recent weeks, the Braves have made preemptive moves, signing five young talents -- Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward -- to multiyear deals, making clear their desire to increase their long-term commitments in light of plans to move into a new stadium in Cobb County for the 2017 season.
"This was really born out of the idea that we feel we have a dynamic young core of players and over the next few years we definitely want to keep them together," said Braves executive vice president and GM Frank Wren, who along with manager Fredi Gonzalez got a contract extension of his own on Wednesday. "We do not envision going into a new ballpark without our core in place."
And it was made possible because of the expected revenue boost from the move to Cobb County.
"As we are able to be more successful/profitable, as we always have done, we'll turn profits back into the operation of the franchise," Schuerholz said in advance of the start of Spring Training.
The Braves committed nearly $225 million for 20 years of service from Freeman (eight years, $135 million), Teheran (six years, $32.4 million), Kimbrel (four years, $42 million), Simmons (7 years, $58 million) and Heyward (two years, $13.3 million). The expectation is that after next season, the Heyward deal can be expanded so that he, too, will be locked up at least through the first year in the new ballpark.
Heyward is considered a potential superstar, but the track record of his first four big league seasons has been more about promise. His career average is .259 with 73 home runs. Heyward played in only 128 games in 2011 and was limited to 104 games last year.
"We've given ourselves time to talk over the next few years," said Wren, who succeeded Schuerholz as GM when Schuerholz became team president after the 2007 season. "When you do deals, especially with younger players, it has to work for both sides."
For the players, it's about long-term security. For the team, it's about cost certainty and avoiding free-agent bidding wars to keep key players in place.
"We met and talked about, 'Let's keep our core guys as Braves,'" said Schuerholz. "This is the prescribed plan that we have in place. ... This is an important nucleus, and we want to try to keep it together for as long as possible."
A franchise that set a professional sports record with 14 consecutive first-place finishes (1991-2005) and, after a four-year postseason absence, has advanced in three of the past four years, is undergoing a changing of the guard.
After the 2012 season, Chipper Jones, signed by the Braves as the first player selected in the 1990 First-Year Player Draft, retired after the 2012 season. Catcher Brian McCann emerged as the face of the franchise, but not for long, leaving as a free agent and signing with the Yankees in December.
"We do have a young team, and [we] feel there is growth in front of them," said Schuerholz. "They have experienced success as part of the nucleus of this team. It's something you want to build on."
Freeman can now assume that "face of the franchise" role, with Kimbrel having received security as the closer, and Teheran signed to a deal that will allow him the time to emerge as the ace of the rotation. And Heyward and Simmons are waiting in the wings.
"I can see what we're doing as an organization and ballclub," Kimbrel said at the time his signing was announced. "We're going to win. As of right now, we're planning on winning for a long time. This is where I want to be. I want to be closing out division titles and [league] championships and World Series. We've got the team to do it."
And the Braves' front office is doing what it can to try to make sure that team stays together for the long run.