Atlanta Braves Payroll Space: What’s Left and How It Impacts the Team

Earlier this month, the Braves’ chair, Terry McGuirk, and president of baseball operations, Alex Anthopoulos, announced plans to increase the club’s payroll compared to 2023, but the exact amount remains uncertain.

Since then, the club has added to its payroll by signing pitcher Reynaldo López and acquiring left-hander Aaron Bummer from the White Sox. Nevertheless, they also decreased expenses by removing a larger number of players. The Bummer deal sent arbitration-eligible players Michael Soroka and Nicky Lopez to the Sox, along with three others. Additionally, Kyle Wright and Nick Anderson, both eligible for arbitration, were traded to the Royals in separate deals, while Yonny Chirinos, Michael Tonkin, and Kolby Allard were not tendered contracts. MLBTR’s arbitration projections in early October showed the club with 13 players in their arbitration years, but subsequent transactions reduced that number to just three: Max Fried, A.J. Minter, and Huascar Ynoa.

All clubs typically trim their rosters during this time of year, but the extent of the Braves’ roster changes has been significant, leaving them with only 31 players on their 40-man roster. The moves reduced their projected salaries by about $16 million, but the club also added some money back on. López signed a three-year, $30 million deal with backloaded payment terms, with $4 million due next year, followed by $11 million in the subsequent two seasons and a $4 million buyout on a club option. Bummer is set to make $5.5 million next year, with a $1.25 million buyout on a $7.25 million club option for 2025, as well as another option after that.

Is all this just routine roster shuffling, or is Anthopoulos creating payroll space for a major move? The club has been linked to high-profile free agents like Aaron Nola and Sonny Gray, leading to speculation that the money saved through trading arbitration salaries might be redirected there. Nola has re-signed with the Phillies, but Gray remains available, along with numerous other pitchers.

David O’Brien of The Athletic recently examined the possibility of the club pursuing Gray and expressed concerns about the competitive balance tax implications. The Braves were above the base threshold in 2023 and are likely to be tax payers again in 2024, which would result in increasing penalties. According to Roster Resource, the Braves’ 2024 payroll is currently at $207 million, while their CBT, based on the average annual value of contracts, stands at $242 million. The base threshold for next year is expected to be $237 million, meaning the club is already over the limit, even before considering a potential deal for another starting pitcher. As a second-time payor, the Braves will see their base tax rate increase from 20% to 30%, with escalating surcharges for every $20 million over the line.

Roster Resource listed the previous year’s payroll at $205 million, suggesting that the 2024 figure has technically increased already, despite the CBT number for this year being slightly lower than last year’s $246 million. If this was the club’s intended payroll increase, it could disappoint fans hoping for big free agent signings. Perhaps Anthopoulos still has a major move planned, but O’Brien’s reporting casts doubt on the resources at his disposal. If he is constrained, the club could potentially shed more salary to pursue a big-name free agent, potentially by trading players like Marcell Ozuna or Raisel Iglesias. Ozuna is set to make $18 million next year with a $1 million buyout on a 2025 club option, while Iglesias will earn $16 million in each of the next two seasons. Although Ozuna’s off-field issues could limit his market, clubs overlooking these concerns will find a player coming off a strong on-field season.

O’Brien’s analysis might be incorrect, and the club could have additional financial resources at its disposal, but the reported fiscal constraints align with recent comments from Wright. In an interview with Justin Toscano of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wright shared that Anthopoulos conveyed a specific financial directive from the top that he had to adhere to. Perhaps Anthopoulos was simply using financials to rationalize the transaction, especially considering that Wright is scheduled to miss the entire 2024 season due to shoulder surgery. Regardless, the potential for a substantial payroll increase may still require the club to make cautious financial moves.

So, is the club clearing space for a big move to acquire Gray or another pitcher? Or will there be more modest transactions from here on out? The club raised questions when announcing its plans to transition López from the bullpen to a starting role for the upcoming season, a surprising decision given his success as a reliever in recent years. Could this be the Braves’ major rotation addition for the offseason, suggesting that Gray might not be headed to Atlanta after all? Toscano questioned Wright about whether the club was attempting to lower its CBT number or free up payroll for a significant acquisition. “I hope (it’s) the second,” Wright responded. “I think that’s what the Braves should be doing, trying to make some big additions. I hope it’s the latter. I don’t know exactly which one. Only Alex knows that. Obviously, we’ll find that out more as the offseason goes along.”


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