Things can change.
Things can stay the same.
The Atlanta Braves used to win the NL East every year. From 1991 to 2005, you could count on the sun rising, the sun setting and the Braves winning the NL East. I arrived in this world in 1991 and the Braves’ streak did not end until I was a mere semester away from becoming a Parkview Panther. As a walking sports encyclopedia -- a descriptor I was given years later at a journalism camp from a girl who almost certainly didn’t intend for me to respond positively to the moniker -- a team winning their division fourteen-straight times should have blown my mind.
A decade-and-a-half of playoff baseball -- with no interruptions.
Oh. Right. Money. Why would it not be about the money? Why do the Yankees have so many rings? Why did every playoff team this season fall in the top-15 in spending? Why did Dodgers return to prominence in the last few years? Why do Met fans hate Fred Wilpon with every fiber of their being? Why are Philly fans so enthused about this particular offseason? Why did the Diamondbacks punt on contending after winning 93 games and going for it in 2017?
Why is it always about the money, man?
It just is.
The Boston Red Sox had the highest opening day payroll in baseball in 2018. The Red Sox won the World Series. Again. Since 2002, the first season of the John Henry era in Boston, the Red Sox have been in the top-5 in spending every single season. Most seasons, you’ll find Boston in the top-spending spot, or the third spot, or even the fourth spot. Never outside of the top five, though. Never. The result? A team that averages a championship every four seasons. Pretty, pretty good.
Not everyone can be the Red Sox, or even the New York Yankees or the Chicago Cubs. Once upon a time, though, the Braves walked among them. In 1998, Atlanta was fourth in spending. In 1999, Atlanta was third. In 2000, Atlanta was, yes, you guessed it, third. The Braves were spending money and winning division titles. In 2007, the Braves were fifteenth. The Braves did not win the NL East in 2007. That difference from spending like Boston and New York to spending like St. Louis and Seattle is obvious. To win in this league, you have to spend money. Often.
So who are the Braves now? The Braves, when they’re not moonlighting as a gross real-estate asset, have the look and feel to a small-market team. Atlanta is not Tampa Bay but they are not Boston, either. They are somewhere in the middle, which is the worst place to be in MLB. If you’re opening day payroll isn’t an eye-popping number it’s better be the 2015 Houston Astros. The Astros were 30th in spending 2015; the Astros were 11th in spending in 2018. This strategy, ethical issues aside, resulted in a championship. Houston increased spending as the team got better and with the amount of talent on the roster, the Astros will have to keep spending to keep a team that was on track to be greatest of all-time in 2018 before injuries befell them together. The Cubs followed a similar path, as did the Washington Nationals and many more. The plan to slash payroll, draft well, develop well, and then spend a bunch of money to preserve it all is a sound won. It has resulted in World Series rings for lots of clubs.
The Braves do not figure to follow that envious path. Other teams within the division, the Phillies and the Nationals, to be sure, do. The Nationals’ ownership group has shown they will spend at an elite-level, consistently, and even if the team loses Bryce Harper to free agency this offseason, it is hard to envision the club slipping out the top-echelon of spenders anytime soon. The Phillies have an owner that is yearning to spend “stupid money” at a point in time where two future HOFers are available in Harper and Manny Machado. The Phils are just a few years removed from being a team that consistently found themselves in that vital top-spending group year after year. We know the Nats and the Phils are going to spending in the 2020s, do we know the Braves are?
We certainly shouldn’t expect it. The Braves, coming off a division-winning season, have been disturbingly quiet. Atlanta won 90 games a season ago, but they are operating like a team that won 73 and are a few years away from being a few years away. This is some Cleveland Indians-like behavior. Maybe even more Pittsburgh Pirates-like behavior. The Pirates, like the Braves, drafted well for a stretch of time, developed well for a stretch of time, but never dove into the deep end with the other real contenders. No, they were pseudo-contenders, choosing sustainability of five years over a potential championship in two years. It should have come as no surprise to see both the Braves and Pirates linked to Chris Archer before the latter traded for him. He was a bargain. Multiple seasons of team-control, young, and, most importantly, cheap.
The Indians, after coming one game short of a World Series victory, stayed the course. The American League, already dominated by teams with big budgets and big stars, is not for Dave Ramsey apologists. It’s a spend-and-you’re-in league. To match the firepower of the Red Sox and Yankees, you have be in a once-and-a-lifetime spot of having a roster littered with cheap, young superstar talent reaching their potential all at the same time. Not everyone can be the Astros. Most won’t. The Indians, instead, have become Houston Ajace. Stocked with multiple MVP-level players, but still cutting corners wherever possible -- trading Yan Gomes, letting Carlos Santana walk, not paying Michael Brantley, etc. This should be an exciting time to be a fans of the Tribe, but it can’t be, right? Not when you see the team let Andrew Miller walk, let Brantley walk, or just that the team has considered trading both Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. The Indians won 91 games and are focused on “cheap roster fillers”. The Braves won 90 games and re-signed Adam Duvall.
For Liberty Media, this is probably of no concern. If I was a betting man, I would bet 2018 was exactly the kind of season this ownership group longed for. A team that wins 90 games with the 21st-cheapest payroll? In today’s cold and calculated MLB, what team doesn’t prefer 90-win seasons and small budgets? Why pay Bryce Harper whatever he wants to be your right-fielder for the next 10 years next to another budding superstar when you can platoon Adam Jones and A.J. Pollock for a year and get eliminated in the NLDS again? Why pay really good baseball players to be on your team when you can pseudo-contend without them? Manny Machado? JOHAN CAMARGO! Yan Gomes? KEVIN PAWLECKI! JT Realmuto? BRIAN MCCANN!
Maybe you can have a Kansas City Royal-esque run. You probably won’t. They were an outlier, a blip, and those are inevitable. Per a user on Reddit, “On average, the team with sixth-highest payroll has won the World Series each of the last 25 years.” It’s cute to be the lovable underdog, the team that tries to win a championship with a bunch of cheap, young and budding superstars, but it’s not realistic. For every Mookie Betts you develop, you need a J.D. Martinez to keep it going. For every Ronald Acuna you develop, you need a Bryce Harper to keep it going. The Nats learned this difficult lesson after their disastrous 2018 season, but they responded how you want your contending team to respond. By offering Harper a very lucrative contact, by signing Patrick Corbin, by signing Brian Dozier, by signing Kurt Suzuki, by signing Anibal Sanchez, and they are probably not done yet. If they can find a way to re-sign Harper, would there not be a case to be made that this team could win the pennant in 2019?
There is a sense of urgency in Washington, there is no sense of urgency in Atlanta. The Braves have doubled in value in the last few years. Per an AJC article from 2018, “The $1.625 billion valuation, if accurate, means the Braves are worth more than 3-1/2 times as much as when Liberty Media acquired the franchise in a complicated tax-driven transaction in 2007. That deal valued the Braves at $450 million.” The Braves have been quite the investment for Liberty Media. The company’s CEO, Greg Maffei was quoted in 2016 saying, “The Braves have been a great asset, great for Liberty, and we are happy owners.” We know the team’s revenue is up, the group will one day sell the team for an obscene fortune, and if the Braves win a title before then, well, cool, but have you visited the Battery?