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Back-to-back? Why the Braves are built to contend for the next decade ESPN


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In late May, the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves were scuffling. They were under .500 and already well behind the New York Mets in the National League East. It was time to make some changes.

So on May 28, they called up 21-year-old center fielder Michael Harris II from Double-A Mississippi. It was an aggressive promotion -- Harris had played just 43 games above Class A ball -- but the Braves were desperate for help, with center fielders Adam Duvall and Guillermo Heredia combining to hit .186 with just two home runs thus far. At the minimum, the Braves knew Harris could patrol center field, and they had liked what they had seen from him during spring training.

The Atlanta rotation was also struggling at the time, with a 4.51 combined ERA. So just two days after Harris debuted, another rookie -- hard-throwing rightie Spencer Strider -- made his first major league start. Strider had excelled in a multi-inning relief role, posting a 2.22 ERA across 24.1 innings, pitching as many as four innings in a single outing. In 2021, Strider had fanned 153 batters in 94 minor league innings; it was time to see how his power stuff translated to the rotation.

The Braves entered June at 23-27, famously 10.5 games behind the Mets. With Harris and Strider in their new roles, they took off. The team went 78-34 the rest of the way, a half-game better than the Dodgers for the best record in the majors, and swept a three-game series against the Mets in the final week of the season to wrap up their fifth straight division title.

Plenty of Braves brass and fans would have predicted another division title was coming out of spring training. But even the most optimistic members of the front office wouldn't have predicted the success of Harris and Strider -- or the contracts both would eventually sign later in the season.

Harris hit .297/.339/.514 with 19 home runs and 20 stolen bases. His 5.3 WAR ranked 23rd in the majors among position players -- and eighth on a WAR/162 basis. Strider finished 11-5 with a 2.67 ERA and an electrifying 202 strikeouts in 131.2 innings. His strikeout rate of 38.3% not only led all pitchers with at least 125 innings but was the third-highest rate ever among pitchers to reach that mark.

They'll not only finish 1-2 in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, but, perhaps even more importantly, they're going to be Braves for a long time. In August, Harris signed an eight-year, $72 million extension that includes team options for 2031 and 2032 that could make it a 10-year, $102 million deal. On Monday, a day before Atlanta's 2022 postseason began, Strider signed a six-year, $75 million extension that includes a $22 million team option for 2029.

And the pair is just the latest in a homegrown core of young Atlanta stars who grew up together in the minors and are already winning big together in the majors.

"That's sort of the motivation in trying to get something like this done," Strider said Monday with his teammates standing behind him at the news conference. "Just to be around the guys that [president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos] has put together and the commitment to winning, not just right now but in the future, with the guys that are in this clubhouse, is very obvious and that means a lot to me. ... I couldn't imagine being anywhere else. And it's the people that really make this a great place."

Back in August, the Braves signed third baseman Austin Riley -- who finished seventh in the NL MVP voting in 2021 and should land in the top 10 once again -- to a 10-year, $212 million extension (with a $20 million club option for 2033). All three players are homegrown draft picks and all are 25 years or younger.

Based on how he's set his team up for the future, Anthopoulos should be a shoo-in for his second executive of the year award -- even if the Braves don't become the first team since the 2000 Yankees to win consecutive World Series titles, which admittedly became a slightly tougher task after Atlanta's 7-6 NLDS Game 1 loss on Tuesday.

What Anthopoulos has done with these long-term signings is part of a bigger trend. Atlanta's under-26 nucleus also includes Ronald Acuna Jr. (signed through 2028 with team options) and Ozzie Albies (signed through 2027 with team options). Throw in 2022 All-Star William Contreras, who hit .278/.354/.506 with 20 home runs in a part-time role, plus 21-year-old rookie infielder Vaughn Grissom, who started the year in Class A and hit an impressive .291/.353/.440 while replacing the injured Albies at second base the final two months, and the Braves have an extraordinary base of young talent to build around -- and to compete for World Series titles the rest of the decade. You can even include first baseman Matt Olson, acquired in a trade from the A's this spring, on that list, as the Braves signed him on a long-term extension the day after the trade -- he'll be in Atlanta through 2029 with a 2030 team option.

Who has the most talent locked up?

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We've sorted the teams with the most star power under control through 2024.

Indeed, this is how you build a baseball dynasty circa 2022: Develop young, homegrown talent and then hopefully sign them to long-term extensions. No organization has done that as well as the Braves. To this point, Atlanta led the majors in FanGraphs WAR from position players 25 or younger:

Braves: 16.8
Astros: 14.4
Guardians: 13.5
Blue Jays: 12.5
Mariners: 9.1

With Strider leading the way and rookie Bryce Elder posting a 3.17 ERA over nine starts, the Braves also ranked in the top five in FanGraphs WAR from pitchers 25 or younger:

Mariners: 8.7
Astros: 7.5
Guardians: 7.2
Angels: 7.2
Braves: 6.4

That pitching group includes 24-year-old Ian Anderson, who struggled in 2022 and isn't on the division series roster, although he was a key part of last season's playoff rotation. But it doesn't include yet another homegrown player, who just barely aged out: The 26-year-old Kyle Wright, who had a breakout season with 21 wins in his first full season in the majors.

"I think it's just really exciting, knowing that you have a chance to play with guys for a long period of time," Wright told ESPN's Jesse Rogers on Tuesday. "I feel like that's a really important thing that sometimes gets undervalued. So knowing that there's a good core group who is going to be here for a long period of time and, again, it's a lot of high-character guys, great people. I think that is a big part of it."

 

Some of the deals -- particularly the Acuna and Albies contracts -- have been criticized as too team-friendly, with the players giving away too much in future earnings. The Albies deal pays him $35 million from 2019 to 2025; the 2026 and 2027 club options are for just $7 million per season -- meaning that the Braves will be paying a two-time All-Star second baseman about the going rate for free agent middle relievers. "It's typical that agents criticize competitors' deals," Jeff Passan tweeted at the time of the signing. "But I've now heard from executives, players, analytics people, development side and scouts who are saying the same thing: The Ozzie Albies extension might be the worst contract ever for a player. And this is not hyperbole."

Of course, it takes two to agree to a contract, and clearly the Braves are making a compelling case to the players who have signed these extensions, convincing them to stay in Atlanta and remain part of a winning culture.

Even Riley's $200-million plus deal is a relative bargain for the Braves. The buyout of his free-agent years from 2026 to 2032 pays him $22 million annually, well below the figures for contracts signed by comparable third basemen like Manny Machado ($30 million per season) or Nolan Arenado ($32.5 million per season). And, yes, Riley compares with those two: Over the past two seasons, he's been worth 12.6 WAR -- Machado comes in at 11.8 and Arenado at 12.0.

Strider's deal is arguably the riskiest of the group for the Braves, if only because he's a pitcher and already has a Tommy John surgery from his college days. For Strider, however, it makes sense to guarantee life-changing money. And he'll only be entering his age-31 season when he reaches free agency for 2030 -- young enough to secure another big contract if he's stayed healthy.

Dansby Swanson, one of the few players the front office hasn't been able to lock up (he's heading into free agency this year), understands the culture that has been established. "This place has obviously been blessed with a lot of great young players," he said Monday. "They've done such a great job of being able to keep those guys around one another. I feel like there's such a bigger vision for this place in mind. And [the front office has] obviously done a good job of being able to piece together players from different backgrounds, from different ages, that all have basically come together and bought into what we have created here. And you give Alex a lot of credit for being able to recognize talent, for being able to kind of push the right buttons."

Bottom line: It's almost impossible to put a sustainable winning product on the field without a group of homegrown players. Recent World Series winners like the Cubs in 2016 and Red Sox in 2018 weren't able to keep the pipeline flowing. The Dodgers continue to pump out talent, but they've always been able to supplement the farm system with a $300 million payroll that allows them to sign big-ticket free agents like Freddie Freeman or give huge extensions to the likes of Mookie Betts. The Braves, with their corporate ownership in Liberty Media, will never be given the payroll budget of the Dodgers, Yankees or Mets.

Nonetheless, they've built an organization that looks like it might track the success the franchise had in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Braves won 14 consecutive division titles (not counting the strike season of 1994). OK, that's a tall order, but it does have a similar feel to that era in Braves history. Once again, this has become a model franchise -- with a chance at more than one World Series championship.

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