There is still plenty of speculation about how much of the 2020 Major League Baseball season - if any - will be played. But one sure thing is that when play resumes the Atlanta Braves will still be one of the better teams in baseball with every reason to believe that a World Series title is within their grasp.
However, the agreement reached by MLB and its players’ association regarding pay and service time last week could put a dent in the length of the Braves’ current run of great play.
Over the last decade, many baseball teams have adopted a roller-coaster philosophy to competing. They will ride out success for a while, but are now more apt to trade off aging and expensive talent. The rebuilding process can be painful for fans and is done for financial benefit of the club - the thought being that there’s no reason to pay top dollar for declining veteran talent that won’t make the playoffs when a roster full of marginal veterans and young players can lose just the same at a much smaller price.
That’s where the current pandemic and suspension of play is hurting the Braves. If play resumes this season, all will be fine. Atlanta will contend for a third consecutive NL East title, although a shortened season figures to be a disadvantage for more talented teams better suited to handle the grind of a full schedule.
If a shorter 2020 hampers the Braves’ competitiveness or the worst case scenario happens and there is no baseball until next spring, that’s when the numbers will start working against them.
The biggest item in last week’s agreement is that, in the event of a total cancellation of the current season, all players will receive an identical credit of their MLB service time accrued in 2019.
That would mean the Braves’ big offseason adds of Cole Hamels and Marcel Ozuna would again be free agents as both are signed to one-year deals. Mark Melancon would also be a free agent as the contract he signed before being traded to Atlanta expires this year.
There is also the issue of age as Freddie Freeman will turn 31 this season and has just one year remaining on his deal.
Losing players is one issue, but adding on payroll seems to be an even bigger concern for Braves ownership group Liberty Media which had often been criticized for being tight with money prior two the last two seasons of winning baseball.
The wave of youth that has been instrumental in the Braves’ rise is about to get a considerable pay raise. Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, A.J. Minter and Chad Sobotka will all be arbitration-eligible next season, guaranteeing a pay raise for all and increasing in accordance with their performance over their first three seasons.
Star outfielder Ronald Acuna will be the biggest hit on the payroll. Acuna is slated to make just $1 million in 2020, but the contract extension signed last year bumps that to $15 million in 2021 and levels out at $17 million per year after that. Ozzie Albies will also be breaking the bank as he will make an additional $2 million in 2021.
The Braves’ roster - as currently constructed - will remain relatively young, even if no baseball is played this season. But the contract structure of the team shows that 2020 is definitely the year Atlanta thinks it can make a World Series push.
If the Braves don’t see any action this year and want to be in a similar spot for 2021, they’ll have to make tough decisions on free agents while the payroll begins to soar.