Braves betting big on core group

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Was it really only two weeks ago that we looked at the Atlanta Braves and wondered what the future held?

Was it really only two weeks ago that it seemed as if the Braves were headed for a potentially heated arbitration hearing with Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and about half their roster?

Was it really only two weeks ago that the big question was: How much longer was their window to win, with this group of players, before they all got too expensive?

Uhhhh, never mind.

Four contract extensions and $222.7 million later, is it safe to say we have our answer?

"I think we do," said Kimbrel with a laugh Monday, a day after signing a four-year, $42 million contract.

And the answer is: That Braves window is now open for many years to come.

In the past two weeks, they've practically handed out extensions like bobbleheads -- one for two years (Jason Heyward), one for four years (Kimbrel), one for six years (Julio Teheran) and one for eight years (Freeman).

"We do even numbers only," joked GM Frank Wren, as he contemplated who on his roster might be about to receive the forthcoming 10-, 12- and 14-year extensions he'll no doubt be doling out in the next half-hour or so. Or not.

But for the Braves, this is no joke. This is a statement. And that statement is ...

"If we were going to be competitive," Wren said, "we needed to keep this core together."

Many GMs say that sort of thing, of course, after extending a young player or four. But for the Braves, this was more than mere talk. This was imperative.

It was imperative because this is a franchise in as unique a position as any team in baseball. And not just baseball, the 2014 edition, but baseball, the 21st-century edition.

It's one thing, you see, to have a young team. Anybody can do that.

It's another thing to have a young team that's actually any good.

And the Braves, as you may recall, won 96 games last year with one of the youngest rosters in baseball.

They had three 23-year-old position players -- Freeman, Heyward and shortstop Andrelton Simmons -- who got 400-plus plate appearances. You should know that no National League team has had three regulars that young get that much playing time while finishing with a winning record in more than a quarter-century (since Pete Rose's 1987 Reds).

And you should especially know that no team in either league has done it and had that good a winning percentage since the 1975 Red Sox of Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans. That was nearly 40 years ago.

Another tidbit to file away: According to baseball-reference.com, the Braves got an incredible 18.7 Wins Above Replacement last year from players 25 or under. The next-closest team in either league was the Angels, with 11.3 -- except that 81 percent of those Angels Wins Above Replacement came from one player (some guy named Trout).

So as this offseason dawned, the Braves found themselves in a potentially special place. They had one of the youngest lineups and pitching staffs in baseball -- but also one of the best teams in baseball.

Which meant they had a chance to play together, grow together and win together for a long time.

But only if they could scrape together enough spare change to keep the band together.

We now know they could, thanks to a new ballpark in the Atlanta suburbs that will arrive in 2017. It explains where a lot of that $222.7 million was coming from.

But to make this work, the Braves still had to find a way to connect the financial dots with their two most challenging extension candidates -- Freeman and Kimbrel. As recently as last month, it looked as if both of them might be unsignable, new ballpark or no new ballpark.

Then, however, they were able to hammer out a stunning eight-year, $135 million deal with Freeman that made him the highest-paid player in franchise history, buying out five free-agent years (at an average annual value of $21.2 million) before his first year of arbitration eligibility had even kicked in.

We should tell you that not everyone in baseball was a fan of that deal. As one NL exec put it, "You're talking about a 24-year-old, 3-plus [service-time] player, and you're locking in his free-agent years at $21-22 million, and he's really only had one good season. ... So if that's what Freddie Freeman got, what does Manny Machado get?"

Fair question. But the Braves, naturally, don't see it that way.

"We looked at a lot of comparable contracts and what players were getting," Wren said. "We looked at the contracts that were signed this winter for players that we did not feel were potentially as impactful as Freddie going forward. And we realized this was probably our last opportunity to get a deal we were comfortable with.

"He's arguably one of the best young hitters in the National League and getting better and better. I think his power is going to continue to develop. I don't know that he's going to be a 40-home run guy, but I don't see any reason why Freddie can't hit 30 and still hit for a high average, because he has that kind of swing."

Whatever Freeman turns into as a hitter and a player, he has already turned into the official Face of this Franchise, here in the post-Chipper, post-Brian McCann era. That seems safe to say ...

Unless Kimbrel wrestles that honor away from him, now that we know he's also going to be around a while.

But as recently as a couple of weeks ago, even he thought his days as a Brave might be dwindling.

Asked Monday if there was a time he thought his contract snafu was leading to an arbitration hearing, he replied: "Yeah. Pretty much all offseason."

Wren admits he wasn't particularly optimistic until "the last week or week and a half, when it became clear that Craig really wanted to be here ... and that was a big thing."

Big enough, in fact, to make this deal materialize extremely quickly.

If Kimbrel had gone to arbitration and won, he stood to make $9 million this year and, conceivably, another $25 million in his final two arbitration years. The Braves almost certainly would have been forced to trade him.

Instead, he took a deal that may net him significantly fewer dollars than if he had been willing to go year-to-year but one that keeps him in Atlanta and still ranks as the fifth-most dollars ever guaranteed to any closer, with the potential to grow to No. 1 on the list.

So while this deal too has raised eyebrows around the sport, you can also argue it made sense for everyone. Which, of course, is the whole idea.

Wren acknowledges it's a contract that comes at a time when closer contracts have been shrinking -- "but none of those contracts," he said, "were for Craig Kimbrel. Nobody else had the top closer in the game at age 26. So we felt as if his landscape was much different than the others."

The GM knows there are people out there saying this money could have been better spent and that closers are replaceable and overrated. But that's easy for them to say. What he believes, he said, is this:

"If your closer stinks, your team stinks."

Good point. Wren also hears the chorus of skeptics who think the Braves should have been more aggressive in spending money this winter on players they didn't sign and develop. But in truth, he said, "We didn't see many players out there who would have made us better." So they invested their money in what they knew best and trusted most:

Their own players.

If that was a message to the outside world, it was also a message that has been received, loud and clear, in the clubhouse. The players now understand the future of their team can be found right in their own locker room.

"All offseason," said Kimbrel, "people kept talking about how we hadn't made any big moves or trades or anything like that. But actually, we really haven't had to. We have everybody we need here."

Now that the contract dust has settled, we know this core group won't just be here today. It'll be here tomorrow. And a lot of tomorrows after that.