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Ashway: Braves' recent contract craze is money well spent

POSTED: February 25, 2014 5:34 p.m.

Are you still trying to digest the Braves’ amazing contract craze?

Did you ever think the Braves would be in a position to commit to spend $280.7 million within a single three-week span? Or even a three-year span?

Did you wonder if Liberty Media had surreptitiously sold the club back to Ted Turner, somehow avoiding colleagues’ scrutiny?

And have you pondered what kind of a complex the team is planning to build in Cobb County? The Braves say these contracts are being driven by the money to be generated by the new ballpark. They must be planning on building the Taj Mahal of baseball, surrounding the new park with the next Disney World. Or, perhaps, a mint.

It’s all so mind-boggling. The team that couldn’t afford to bring back Brian McCann is now able to lavish lucrative long-term contracts on five of its core players. Contracts so large that they induced signings rather than prospecting with the Yankees or Dodgers for bigger bucks at a later date.

Incredible stuff, really. And no one saw it coming.

Nor has anyone mentioned one fabulous by-product of these signings. General Manager Frank Wren will be disinclined to dabble in the free agent market. Over the rest of this decade, will any of us miss the next B.J. Upton? Derek Lowe? Kenshin Kawakami?

We also know that sometimes the best trades are the trades that aren’t made. These signings certainly limit the possibility that Wren might make a bad deal. Like, say, Omar Infante and Mike Dunn for Dan Uggla, whose free agent-like contract extension really soured this deal.

In fact, since the best trades are made from positions of strength, these signings afford the Braves the opportunity to be on the long end of a lopsided trade. Remember when the Padres traded Fred McGriff to the Braves on July 17, 1993?

Once McGriff joined the team, the Braves went 51-17. McGriff hit .310, with 19 homers and 55 RBI in those 68 games. In five seasons, he hit 130 homers and made three All-Star teams. And he anchored the lineup of the Braves’ only World championship team.

For McGriff, the Braves surrendered minor league prospects Vince Moore, Donnie Elliott and Melvin Nieves. Moore never reached the major leagues. Elliott had a 3.27 era in 30 games out of the Padres bullpen. Nieves never hit in San Diego, though he did produce two 20-homer seasons in Detroit.

The Braves were able to pull off that deal because of their excellent, and abundant, farm system. The Braves were so good at developing players that anyone in their system seemed to acquire an inflated value.

And look what’s just happened. All five of the players the Braves locked up with deals ranging from two to eight years — Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons — are products of the Braves farm system.

Make no mistake — the camaraderie you see the Braves exhibit on the field is no accident. Kimbrel said it best, telling MLB.com, “I want to stay here with a group of guys that I came up with and am comfortable with. In the game of baseball, it’s the team you’re on, the guys you’re surrounded by. We have an awesome core here. I feel like this is a core that can work for a long time.”

Wren has repeatedly said that this is just the start. That sends a positive message to the entire team. Guys like Mike Minor and Evan Gattis now know that if they produce, there’s a great chance they’ll be rewarded by the Braves.

Make no mistake, this is a special group. The team that won 96 games last year featured three players in the regular lineup (Heyward, Freeman and Simmons) who were 23 years old.

The last National League team to fashion a winning record starting three regulars that young? The 1987 Cincinnati Reds. The last team that produced a record as good as the Braves with three 23-year olds in the lineup was the 1975 Red Sox. That team featured an outfield of Dwight Evans, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.

Here’s another interesting tidbit. The 2013 Braves got a staggering 18.7 Wins Above Replacement from players age 25 or under. The next best number in baseball was the Angels at 11.3 — and 9.15 of those were produced by one Mike Trout.

Truly special, this group. Another tribute to the Braves excellent farm system.

So let’s not forget the father of that farm system. The man who realized what it would take to create a winning franchise. The man who returned to Atlanta in October of 1985 as general manager and never left, Bobby Cox.


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