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Which of the five unsigned arb-eligible players should the Braves lock up?

Which of the five unsigned arb-eligible players should the Braves lock up?

Friday, March 25, 2022

-Clint Manry

The deadline for submitting salary figures to arbitration-eligible players came and passed on Tuesday, but the Braves only managed to come to terms with three of its eight players, leaving a quintet of young talent still unsigned for the 2022 season in outfielder Adam Duvall, pitchers Max Fried and Luke Jackson, third baseman Austin Riley and shortstop Dansby Swanson. Now, with Atlanta being a “file-and-trial” team, GM Alex Anthopoulos won’t actually have his hands in negotiating any potential arbitration salaries for those five players – that goes to arbitrators. However, should Anthopoulos get involved? I mean, the man has pulled off quite an amazing offseason, trading for a 4-5 WAR player in Matt Olson, plus signing two above-average pitchers in Collin McHugh and Kenley Jansen (and Kirby Yates, who’s currently on the IL). The Braves payroll is as high as it has ever been, but should the team keep going?

According to Spotrac (as of Friday), the Braves 2022 payroll sits at $172.225 million, which is currently the eighth-highest in the majors. That’s roughly $20 million more than what Atlanta ended up with at season’s end last year, suggesting that, coming off a World Series win, Liberty Media is finally reading to spend money like a consistent contender. But how much higher could the team realistically go? With benefits and minor league estimates included, Spotrac has the Braves at just over $201 million overall, putting them roughly $28 million away from the $230 million tax threshold for this season. How close to the limit is Anthopoulos willing to get?

Well I believe the Braves have plenty of funds to lock up the young players it should. From the five arb-eligible players still unsigned, below is a look at the two players I think should receive a long-term extension…

Max Fried

Potental extension: 5 years, $60 million

Fried commanded a $6.85 million salary for the 2022 season, but the Braves came in at $6.6 million, which is pretty ridiculous given we’re talking about just $250K. However, I believe there’s a way the two sides can find some common ground. The lefty still has two more arbitration seasons following this year, meaning if not extended he’ll be a free agent in 2025 as a 31-year-old. I have faith that Fried will still be a productive big league starter by then, but his market probably won’t be as lucrative as it would be if he was a guy in his mid- or late-20s. The Braves could entice him with a five-year deal, paying him an even $12 million per season. That’s nearly triple what he earned in 2021, and almost double what he was projected to earn in arbitration this season. I think that’s a great deal for both sides, as Atlanta would be covering his last two arb years plus two of his free agent seasons, setting Fried up to enter the market as a still-youngish 33-year-old following the 2026 campaign.

Austin Riley

Potential extension: 5 years, $50 million

Once again, the figures were really close on Tuesday as Riley came in at $4.2 million and the Braves at $3.95 million. As we’re all aware, Atlanta’s third baseman had a career year in 2021, posting a whopping 4.2 fWAR, thanks to a .303 AVG, 33 home runs and 107 RBI (135 wRC+) in 160 games. We knew he had the power in him, but I’m not sure any of us expected him to hit .300. Of course, that was just one season, and many could make the argument that it wouldn’t be smart to go all in on a guy who just two years ago hit .239 and was a below-replacement-level player in 51 games in 2020. But I think locking up Riley could be a worthwhile gamble. He didn’t even earn $600K last season, and Spotrac projects just a $4-million salary for 2022. I think the Braves swoop in with a contract that’s hard for Riley to reject, buying up all four of his arb years plus one free agent season and instantly making him a rich man. And on the plus side, with this deal, the third baseman would still be only 30-years-old when he enters the market in the offseason prior to the 2027 season.

Why not Dansby Swanson?

Swanson has been one of my favorite Braves ever since the team acquired him from the D’Backs. However, it’s been a roller coaster of a ride watching him finally develop into the shortstop he has become. Now 28-years-old, Swanson is just now coming off his first 3-fWAR season (and 2 WAR matter of fact) as its taking him basically five years to become an actual threat in the Braves lineup. Now obviously, as a shortstop, he doesn’t need to hit 25-30 homers with 80-90 RBI, but with a projected arbitration salary of $10.1 million (per Spotrac) for 2022 (his final arb season), Swanson almost has to be one of the better bats to hold his value. I just don’t think he’ll repeat his 2021 performance enough to justify what a potential extension would cost the Braves.

Battery Power suggests that Atlanta offer him something around $12 million per season, buying out his final year of arbitration in 2022 plus a few free agent years — so something like three years, $36 million. But I don’t see Swanson going for that, not when he could possibly post another 3-WAR campaign in ’22 and then command a multi-year deal worth $80 million or so in free agency next winter. Shortstop is a rather deep position these days, so I think this may be the final year of Swanson in Atlanta.

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