When the Atlanta Braves signed Chipper Jones to a three-year contract extension with a vesting fourth year early on Tuesday, they were doing more than securing the services of a future Hall of Fame player who has spent his entire career with the organization, they were also putting back together the image of an organization that had been fire bombed by bad luck and bad agents this off-season. Just as they likely overpaid for their new ace pitcher Derek Lowe, they likely spent money unwisely in a baseball sense when they decided to pay Chipper Jones big bucks at ages 40 and 41. Some players perform at an elite level at age 40 and beyond, but most do not.
But this is one of those decisions you don't make with stats or all that much logic, you make it with emotion and desperation. The Braves needed a revival of the face of the franchise, and with Chipper Jones they cemented that face of the franchise for the rest of his playing career. They needed, not good, but great news, and this gives them that rose-colored headline that ends their spring training and their off-season on a positive note.
In baseball logic, you don't usually pay a player big money who is coming off five consecutive injury plagued seasons. With all we know about the decline of players as they get older, and with no external supplements to turn to, why would an organization, an NL DH-less organization, sign an untradeable veteran at age 37 (on April 24th) to a contract that eats up 15 percent of their payroll for each of the next three (possibly four) years.
This makes me think back to something Keith Law said in the Q&A I did with him in February. He said, "[the Braves] organizational weakness [is] their excessive loyalty to certain players." He singled out Jeff Francoeur and Tom Glavine, but we can apply this same idea to the Chipper Jones signing.
Is this a sign of organizational strength or organizational weakness?
While loyalty is not something talent evaluators like Law can assign a value to, it is something that players in an organization pay very close attention to. Throughout the tenure of Bobby Cox, the Braves have gone almost out of their way to maintain their loyalty to players, whether it comes to contracts or playing time. This has worked out well for the Braves when it comes to contract time, as many homegrown players feel they need to reciprocate that loyalty and sign for slightly less than market value. Though, when that discount is expected, the backlash as seen in the John Smoltz fiasco this winter, can be a devastating blow to an organization which prides itself on its loyalty to players.
We've also seen this loyalty work out well, and not work out at all, on the field. Giving Kelly Johnson, and his 2-for-34 start in 2005, time to work out his problems has payed off for the Braves, but Ryan Langerhans and his 3-for-44 start in 2007, did not. It's certainly a live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword philosophy in every aspect of baseball operations.
But back to Chipper and this enormous contract-slash-retirement-bonus. I'll be the first to say that on first blush I like this signing, but then again, I never professed to subscribe to baseball logic, especially when it comes to "our guys," the "Braves' guys" -- and Chipper is at the head of that class. This contract is probably not a good one in a baseball sense. Yes, Chipper won the batting title last year, but we have to come back to the fact that he missed 34 games and he's failed to drive in 100 runs in four out of the last five seasons, and for that to warrant a three or four-year deal may not be good business sense.
And here is where the conflict happens.
I like the guy, I like that he'll be a Brave for his entire career, I'm glad we're getting a final dose of good news before the season starts, but I don't like tieing up that much money in a player with his history of injuries and an aging body. This is a great day for the Braves, and it may be great for another year or two, but we may be gritting our teeth in several years when we're committing a large portion of our payroll to two guys (Lowe and Chipper) who can hardly take the field.