Did the Braves Find the Secret to Ignoring Service Time?
This was supposed to be a Vaughn Grissom article.
When the 21-year-old infielder was called up last week, I noticed on his FanGraphs page that he wasn't projected to make the majors until 2024 (2024!!).
And yet, here he is, already in the big leagues in 2022 (producing quite well, might I add).
This article was supposed to be about the Braves' willingness to win now and disregard service time, unlike certain teams (*cough* the yankees).
But, thanks to this news, this article's focus is shifting:
Instead of observing that the Braves disregard service time more so than the average team, and then mentioning their propensity to sign their young stars to long-term, team-friendly deals, we'll be focusing on the latter.
After just 80 days in the majors, budding star centerfielder Michael Harris II became the latest Brave to sign a massive extension.
This has become the Braves M.O. in recent years. In fact, since GM, Alex Anthopolous took the reigns to the team, Atlanta has signed three other homegrown talents (Ronald Acuña Jr, Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley) to massive long-term deals under market value (or in Albies' case, criminally under market value), and locked up Matt Olson to an eight-year deal immediately after acquiring him from Oakland.
While two of their all-stars, Max Fried and Dansby Swanson, haven’t signed extensions, it seems that the Braves' confidence in signing these types of deals and their desire to win has allowed them to disregard service time manipulation.
This is despite having one of the worst farm systems in the league.
This is how long each of the Braves’ core is signed through:
While players like Max Fried and William Contreras will get their fair share through arbitration, with the majority of the positional core locked up, the Braves have tons of financial flexibility to fill in other holes on their roster, as they did when taking on Rasiel Iglegias’ contract in full this trade deadline or signing Kenley Jansen to a $16 contract this past offseason.
Anthopolous’s ability to lock up elite major league talent for pennies on the dollar has inspired meme-level conspiracies from certain baseball fans, like And That’s Baseball.
But this begs the question… why isn’t every GM in baseball doing this? If you could lock down your elite core for $50 or so million less than market value and sign coveted free agents, why wouldn’t you?
There are two reasons.
The first is who is advising the young stars.
You might not have noticed, but the Braves apparently don’t have a single Scott Boras client. Whether this is by design or not is probably not going to be something Atlanta’s front office will admit to. However, this fact does demonstrate that agents do matter.
Boras is famous for finding his clients the best deal possible in terms of maximizing dollars. These deals the Braves do are assuredly not that.
This is why Juan Soto is not signing anything remotely in the ballpark of what Acuña signed in 2019. In fact, if Soto signs for anything less than four times the value of Acuña's eight-year, $100 million contract, something went seriously wrong.
This isn’t to say that the Braves are robbing their players blind (except Albies). This is the second reason more teams aren’t hopping on this extension binge.
Long-term contracts to players who hardly have any service time have worked out plenty, with guys like Evan Longoria, Alex Bregman, and Tim Anderson being worth their contracts and then some, but it doesn’t always play out that way.
For every Ozzie Albies, there’s a potential Scott Kingery. Kingery signed a 6-year, 24 million contract before he even played a game. Yet, four years into the contract, he’s been DFA’d, unclaimed, recalled, and sent down again. He’s put together 0.8 fWAR and still has two years left on his contract.
In my video on my personal channel about the misconception of loyalty in baseball, I mentioned that more young stars are signing these long-term deals early because it secures guaranteed earnings.
The Braves have gone all in on this strategy, but, as I've shown, it doesn't go without a lot of risk for the team as well (and we haven't even mentioned Jon Singleton). It also shows plenty of trust on the ownership's part to allow Anthapolous to aggressively offer so many extensions. This is something he's referenced plenty, too, in the numerous press conferences.
While Scott Boras will almost always advise players to decline these deals in hopes of earning $500 million four years later, other players, like Michael Harris, are willing to take these deals.
After all, a guaranteed $72 million is $71 million more than if he flamed out tomorrow and never played another season after this one.
There’s the possibility of a third reason (clubhouse culture and location), but since I’ve never been inside a major league clubhouse, I have my reservations stating that the Braves clubhouse is much better than some teams like the Yankees, and that’s the reason Austin Riley is locked up for ten years and Aaron Judge isn’t.
So far, this strategy has paid off nicely for the defending champions. With Acuña Jr and Albies making far less than they would have through arbitration, it enabled AA to sign relievers like Collin McHugh and Kenley Jansen to hefty contracts. By signing Riley and Harris II to ten-year deals, the team now has extra flexibility to fill in holes elsewhere.
But, is this the secret to ending service time manipulation? Of course not.
Even with the contracts Anthopolous has handed out, not every young guy is getting locked up for life.
Additionally, it’s likely the Braves' desire to win now, and unforeseen holes that prompted the quick call-ups like Harris II and Grissom, not the belief they’ll be able to extend the players.
The 21-year-old Vaughn Grissom played a whopping 22 games in AA (not even 100 PAs), and just entered MLB Pipeline's Top 100 a month ago. His hot start in the majors should not be expected for every young guy you call up from that level. There is actually something to be said about readiness.
There's no guarantee that Grissom continues to play to the level he has so far (a 209 wRC+ in 11 games probably isn't sustainable across 150 games). There's also no guarantee he'll sign a long-term deal in a year if this production does continue.
Should teams like the Yankees call up their top prospects instead of letting them waste away in the minors? Absolutely. I’m sick and tired of seeing Isiah Kiner-Falefa on my Twitter feed. But this probably isn't the solution to ending service time manipulation.
Let the kids play when they're ready.