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David O'Brien

Braves doing deals, future looking brighter

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Two weeks ago, the Braves had just one player, B.J. Upton, signed beyond 2016. The center fielder’s $16.45 million salary in ’17 was all that the Braves had committed to player payroll after their final season in Turner Field, before a move to a planned new ballpark in Cobb County.

Today, the Braves have at least $152.25 committed beyond 2016 to four players: Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, and B.J. And that would climb to a minimum of $174.25 million committed to those four beyond 2016 if one-year options are exercised at the end of the six-year deal that Julio Teheran signed Friday and the four-year deal that Craig Kimbrel signed Sunday.

All-Star Freddie Freeman has quickly developed into one of the top young hitters in baseball.

Freddie Freeman’s $135 million extension was the biggest purchase of the Braves’ two-week spending spree.

Barring injuries, those options will surely be exercised, since each would be a bargain at that point for high-grade pitchers.

Man, the perception of the Braves has sure changed in a span of 13 days, wouldn’t you say? Beginning with that memorable Tuesday, Feb. 4, when the Braves avoided arbitration with Jason Heyward by signing him to a two-year, $13.3 million contract in the morning, then obliterated the urgency of that announcement by signing Freeman to a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million deal by early afternoon.

As you’ve surely noticed, Heyward is not among the foursome the Braves have signed for the planned move north to Cobb. When he and the Braves were a figurative mile apart in their preliminary discussions of what I’m told was a five-year deal after the 2012 season, there were no other multi-year discussions until they agreed to the two-year deal that covers his last two arb years before free agency after the ’15 season.

And for those who keep asking me if I think the Braves will sign Heyward to a long-term deal now that they’re doling them out to other rising young stars, I gotta say no, I honestly don’t think so. It certainly wouldn’t be the first – or 50th — time I’ve been wrong, but I can’t really come up with a scenario that would  make it likely that Heyward signs a long-term deal before hitting the open market.

Think about it: If he has a great year this season, he’ll only be one year from free agency, and how much would the Braves have to pay to make it worthwhile for him not to just wait at that point and see what offers he could draw when any team could bid for him? If Heyward and his agents are as confident about his career arc and the demand there will be for his services, I’ve got a feeling they wouldn’t accept anything less for his first five free agent years than, oh, the $106.5 million that Freeman is going to get in what would’ve been his first five free-agent years.

And no, even with the big revenue increases the Braves obviously believe they’re going to get from the new ballpark and planned surrounding retail/entertainment village, I don’t see them paying those two guys something like $45 million annually in the first few several years they’re in the new ballpark. Then again, I didn’t see them signing Freeman to a deal that would pay him more than $106 million over a five-year span. So I guess you never know.

Secondly, Heyward hasn’t had consecutive seasons like the three that Freeman has produced in his first three years in the majors. Jason had a spectacular first half of his rookie year, before an injury, and had a few terrific stretches since then, including his off-the-chart severeal weeks in the leadoff role last summer before he got his face smashed by a fastball. His talent is enormous, his ceiling still as high as ever. Like many, I still believe he’s the most talented player in the organization and one of the most talented young guys in baseball. But…

The man has had some terrible luck with injuries, including two surgeries during the 2013 season for an appendectomy and broken jaw – find a player with that one-year medical misfortune on his resume – that he couldn’t have done anything to prevent. But bottom line, teams pay for performance and most also demand some consistency from the guys to whom they give the longest, most lucrative deals.

And if Jason has consecutive seasons of good health and the numbers we’ve seen he can produce when healthy, well, then at the end of those two seasons he will be a free agent, and what are the chances the Braves would try to out-bid the Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, et al, for his services?

Not good.

So unless he has a good-not-great year in 2014 and the Braves and Heyward somehow come to an agreement on, oh, say a four-year deal that is club-friendly but also gives him enough security to make it appealing in case he were concerned about another injury-marred 2015 season – stay with me folks, I’m just trying to come up with a scenario where he stays – then I don’t see it happening long-term with the Bravos and J-Hey.

Which would’ve been hard to believe a couple of years ago, wouldn’t it? It was just assumed when Heyward first arrived in 2010 and caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hank on Opening Day, then homered in that first game and electrifying Turner Field, that Heyward would be the heir apparent to Chipper Jones as the face of Braves baseball for the next decade or more.

Craig Kimbrel signed a four-year deal with a fifth-year option, and the Braves' commitments to Freeman and others helped convince him it was the thing to do.

Craig Kimbrel signed a four-year deal with a fifth-year option, and the Braves’ commitments to Freeman and others helped convince him it was the thing to do.

If there were any remaining doubts about how much things had changed in the past couple of years, those doubts were erased when Freeman, after his All-Star season, fifth-place MVP finish, and first 100-RBI year by a Brave since 2007, got the most ginormous deal – by any measure — ever agreed to by the Braves.

And they even announced it the same day that Heyward’s deal was announced and Heyward had a conference call with us.

So anyway, here we are. With a Braves team that suddenly is locking up young players to long-term deals and a future that is sure looking a lot brighter than some believed just a couple of weeks ago, even though the Braves had indicated since fall that they planned to sign some of their young talent to long-term deals. (Hey, when you’ve only done it once in the last decade, for the seven-time All-Star catcher who just left as a free agent, then the fan base tends to take an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude,and who can blame them?)

Well, now we’ve seen it.

In a span of 12 days, the Braves signed four players (including Heyward) to contracts worth $222.7 million guaranteed and potentially up to around $250 million when adding one-year options for Teheran and Kimbrel and all the incentives in the contracts of Kimbrel and Heyward.

They’d done it all while keeping their current payroll just below the $100 million that I’d heard early in the offseason was their targeted amount. The longer deals all escalate drastically in salary after the arbitration years, which also dovetail with the Braves’ move into the new ballpark.

It’s all about timing, and in the cases of Freeman, Kimbrel and Teheran – and I’d bet on Andrelton Simmons and Mike Minor and possibly Kris Medlen getting extension offers within the next year — the timing was right for the Braves and some players who had a strong desire to sign long-term and liked the idea of staying in Atlanta.

Simmons arrived at camp on Tuesday morning, and during our interview with him I asked about him possibly getting a multi-year extension. Here’s the link so you can see what he said.

When Freeman, Heyward and Teheran all signed multi-year deals, Kimbrel was ready to sign on for a deal that could potentially be quite club-friendly for the Braves if he does anything close to what he’s been doing for another four or five years.

“This is where I want to be,” he said Sunday morning, sitting next to Wren to announce the deal in the dugout. “If I didn’t want to be here, this wouldn’t be going on. I can’t be any happier. I can see what we’re doing as an organization and as a ballclub. We’re going out to win. And not just 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 have the team to do it, and I’m very excited… I want to stay here with a group of guys that I came up with and am comfortable with. And in the game of baseball, it’s who you’re around, it’s the team you’re on, it’s the guys you’re surrounded by. We have an awesome core here, and I feel like this is a core that can work for a long time.”

He gets to stay close to home (Huntsville, ‘Bama) and his relatives, keep pitching for the team he always loved as a kid, and be part of a plan – keep the core together for years to come – that suddenly makes the Braves look a lot more competitive for the future than their lack of long-term commitments made it seem might be the case up until a couple of weeks ago.

For all that, Kimbrel will willing to trade some potential long-term dollars. Well, all that plus the matter of security for a guy whose position – closer – is known for volatility and a lack of longevity. All pitchers know they are only one pitch away from potential calamity, but power pitchers who come in and let it all hang out for one inning at a time know they are particularly susceptible to health risk and burnout rather than fade away.

Teheran (center) is in the Braves' plans after they move to their new ballpark in 2017, but Heyward (right) is signed only through 2015.

Teheran (center) is in the Braves’ plans after they move to their new ballpark in 2017, but Heyward (right) is signed only through 2015.

“My goal is to show up and do better than I’ve done in the last three years,” said Kimbrel, who’s made the All-Star team in each of his three seasons as closer and led the NL or tied for the lead in saves each season. “Each and every year that I show up, I want to do better than the year before. And that’s not going to change.

“It’s relaxing to know that all I have to worry about for the next five years is showing up and winning. And that really is all I think about, is winning. When I get the ball in my hand, I want to walk off the field with the game won. And that’s all I have to think about for the next four or five years.”

As for the Braves, sure there is risk in these long-term contracts. They can’t afford to have Freeman be anything but the stud they expect him to be and are going to pay him to be for the last five years of that huge deal. They need Kimbrel to remain a top-shelf closer. Etc., etc.

But team officials can’t be scared to make deals, or they’ll never make any. And there is always going to be risk in these type of long-term contracts that buy out arb and some free-agent years for young stars. Because if there was no risk involved, if we knew those players were going to continue being who they are right now or better, well, in that case those players could just wait to get to free agency and cash in on even bigger deals. You feel me?

The Braves did well, folks. Even the most hardened cynic or skeptic has to see that, right? Or as some of say down South, they done good.

• Been listening a lot to Mark Lanegan‘s new two-disc anthology, Has God Seen My Shadow? The man is brilliant. Listen here to “Mockingbirds.”

“MOCKINGBIRDS” by Mark Lanegan

Your voice is a mockingbird
Calling me when the day is gone
You please yourself with every word

Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan

Telling me where I’m going wrong
Telling me where I’ve gone wrong

Get me out it’s starting to burn
I can’t let go for the life of me
Some hold tight, and some turn
Another fire out in front of me
My whole life out in front of me

You can’t kill what’s already dead
But I don’t blame you for trying it
The sun comes up and falls away
Two little birds makin’ sense of it
Two mockingbirds making sense of it

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