When the Atlanta Braves were acquired by Liberty Media back in 2007, it took a while for people to figure out what was going on. A corporation not fond of making long-term financial commitments had done exactly that, and for all the wrong reasons.
As many know by now, the acquisition of the Atlanta Braves was just a huge tax write-off for Liberty Media. They owned a great deal of stock in Time Warner, and wanted to sell that stock to Time Warner, who just so happened to own the Atlanta Braves. Because Time Warner used the team as a portion of the buying power to buy their stock, the entire sale was tax-free, saving both sides tens of millions of dollars.
At the time of the sale, it was hard to tell if the Braves were going to continue to dominate the NL East for ten more years, or if they’d be in the division’s cellar in five. Obviously, the latter happened, but only after Frank Wren’s front office was allegedly steered clear of a rebuild. Here’s a tweet from Frank’s brother, Jeff Wren, with Schuerholz’s response when asked about a rebuild:
John Schuerholz was asked in 2011 and 2012 by the Sr Special Asst to GM and FW to allow to take a step back so we could take two steps forward. He arrogantly told them both "The Atlanta Braves do not rebuild". How's that working for you now John?
— MLB Grapevine (@MLBGrapevine) November 22, 2017
Let’s be clear here: Liberty Media is not the only party at fault for the Braves’ shaky financial situation. Obviously Schuerholz allowed a rebuild to happen, but only after giving Wren the boot. It stands to reason that there may have been some bad blood between Wren and one or more of the higher-up executives, as the first transaction of the Coppolella era was the trading of Frank Wren’s son, Kyle Wren.
John Schuerholz, while revered by many of his colleagues, is not the sharp, baseball-minded man he once was. He’s getting older, and with his Hall of Fame induction already in the books, a new owner would surely banish him to retirement.
Besides, I don’t believe Schuerholz contributes anything to the Atlanta Braves, aside from the potential corruption that may still exist with his ties to the Coppolella/Hart situation. Hart’s resignation shortly after the GM meetings kicked off is arguably an admission of guilt in the Coppy situation, and there’s reason to believe that he was just as much a part of the shady business practices.
John Schuerholz was either overseeing the cheating and turning a blind eye, or he was oblivious to what was going on within the organization. Either way, I don’t want that kind of guy leading a club trying desperately to fight its way back into contention. The Atlanta Braves need honest, reliable leadership at all levels.
Is Liberty Media an honest, reliable owner?
Right off the bat, here’s a tweet from a Braves fan with a screenshot from a Mark Bowman Q&A that pretty much sums up Liberty’s ownership status:
If Bowman is correct- and he usually is- all the talk of moving to a new park so we can raise payroll/be more competitive financially was a sham. pic.twitter.com/2GBCGBi0xA
— Dayton from Nebraska (@BravesAmerica) April 30, 2018
Mark Bowman is as close to the organization as anyone else, so I trust his word that, while additions are being made to the Battery, the team’s payroll will not see much of an increase — just yet.
Liberty Media no longer cares primarily about the Atlanta Braves on the field. Liberty is a company that manages assets and does a fine job maximizing profits along the way, and there’s an obvious shift of focus happening right now towards monetizing the Atlanta Braves’ brand and the land-development opportunities that inherently come with it.
If there’s an investment group or interested corporation willing to bank on the success of the Battery along with the MLB club, there’s a good chance Liberty can cash in on the potential of the land development without having to do all of the hard work in the coming years by selling the team soon. I don’t see Liberty getting too tied up in all of this real estate unless they can find a way to sell the baseball team without relinquishing the rights to the land around the stadium.
Why isn’t payroll going up?
In an AJC article by Tim Tucker, despite the Braves’ $124 million increase in revenue, Terry McGuirk says, “[T]here is a lot of debt, there are a lot of new expenses.” Apparently, as a result of this, the Opening Day payroll had to to decrease from last year’s mark, and as Bowman said, won’t be much different next year.
McGuirk later says in Tucker’s article, “There will be very few teams that have as much to spend in the marketplace next winter as the Atlanta Braves,” and many fans took this as a sign that payroll was going to increase during the 2019 offseason. However, I believe the only plan in place is to allocate resources that will be freed up through expiring contracts more effectively.
The Braves will have Nick Markakis, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, Tyler Flowers, Kurt Suzuki, Jose Bautista, Ryan Flaherty, Chris Stewart, Scott Kazmir, Adrian Gonzalez, Peter Bourjous, and R.A. Dickey‘s retirement gift coming off of the books after this year, freeing up an estimated total of $73.5 million.
Of course, there are arbitration and pre-arb guys to factor in, but they won’t make too much of a difference payroll-wise (maybe $5-10M added), so to be on the safe side, let’s say that the Braves should have about $55-60 million free to spend without adding onto payroll.
Before this money is spent, Anthopoulos will need to assess internal options at third base, right field, and in the rotation/bullpen before deciding where the most money should be spent. If Atlanta he can get away with spending no more than $25 million on position players and solving the rotation internally, Atlanta could be in for a couple of elite bullpen arms.
Going back to what Bowman said, he’s heard that there’s likely at least $50 million to spend. That sounds a lot like payroll not increasing from this season to next, once again. Unless something huge happens at the deadline or this offseason, I can’t see Liberty Media being willing to dump any more money into the Braves’ payroll, but there might be good reason behind doing so.
Does ownership trust Alex?
Alex Anthopoulos has everything to prove at the Atlanta Braves’ GM, but would he really be proving himself if he had seemingly-bottomless pockets to work with? Ownership may want Anthopoulos to prove that he can build a playoff-caliber team with the resources currently available before they’re ready to give him access to more money.
While Anthopoulos has felt success from an MLB front office standpoint, he’s still a young executive with loads to learn. It certainly won’t hurt to let the young guys develop at the MLB level while Alex shows ownership what he can build around them without pushing heavily towards contention just yet.
Even if the Braves were to be sold within the next year or so, I’d expect new ownership to clean house around Anthopoulos, ensuring that he’s got full control over all baseball operations. The “Braves Way”, as some have called it, is dying quickly. It’s been dying since the day Liberty took over.
I will say this once more: If the Atlanta Braves want to be championship contenders, Liberty Media has to find a way to sell this team to someone who cares about winning.
The only problem with that? They probably won’t.
The Atlanta Braves on the field are essentially no more “the Atlanta Braves” than the Battery Atlanta and its developments in terms of “selling the Atlanta Braves”. As I mentioned earlier, Liberty will have to either find a way to separate the two. or they’ll have to find someone to bank on the long-term success of both and make a huge investment.
There are some that believe that Liberty is just going to sit back and ride out this ownership until it’s no longer financially viable to do so, but honestly, why wait? There’s a chance to bring in five years’ revenue right now if Liberty were to sell the braves for $2 billion, which is within reason.
The way things are looking, payroll won’t increase just yet, but there is a great chance that Alex Anthopoulos can find a way to make these Atlanta Braves into something even more special than they already are with even just $50-60 million to play with this offseason. There are some talented guys at key positions of need for the Braves in the next couple of free agent classes, and Anthopoulos will not hesitate to pull the trigger if he can make this team better.
For now, the Braves are playing above .500, and if this team can find a way to pitch as well as it’s hitting, we may be looking at more than just a Wild Card contender. I wouldn’t be surprised if the front office plays it safe at the deadline this year, but that’s a bridge no one’s ready to cross just yet.
No one knows what’s in store for the Atlanta Braves at any level of the organization in the coming years, but they’ve got a great core to build around in all areas, so there’s no reason this club shouldn’t succeed soon. It’s up to the ownership to ensure that this happens, and it’s up to the fan base to hold ownership accountable when they’re not doing so. Again, we’ll cross that bridge if/when we get there.