This post is inspired by a similar analysis done by the great Bill Baer over at Crashburn Alley. You should definitely read it. For the comparison to the information in this post, of course, but also for the schadenfreude.
The Braves don't have a huge payroll, yet they manage to field a competitive team year after year. There are a lot of ways to get the most bang for your buck; #1 is developing home-grown stars, something the Braves have excelled at.
Another way of maximizing value is to limit the amount of money spent on aging players while simultaneously investing in players who are at or near their prime years. Older players are, after all, more likely to break down or decline precipitously (and less likely to improve). While the Braves haven't been perfect in this arena (Derek Lowe), they have had a lot less dead money on the payroll than, say, the Phillies.
With Chipper Jones retired and the Lowe contract (finally, blessedly) off the books, the Braves' payroll vs. age breakdown is quite favorable. The team's current total payroll is around $88 million. Of that, only around $33 million will be paid to players in their 30s. By contrast, the Phillies are paying more than 3/4 of their payroll, around $135M, to players over 30 (and all of the big contracts are to players 32 and older).
Here's a chart that shows the Braves' salary situation by age (which is calculated, Baseball-Reference style, as the player's age for the majority of the 2013 season):
The Braves only have 4 players on the roster who are older than 31: Dan Uggla, Gerald Laird, Reed Johnson, and Tim Hudson. Those guys are making a relatively affordable $25M (if this seems bad, compare it to what Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, or any number of other older players will be making in the coming years).
Let's divide the players into age groups to get a better idea of where the Braves are spending their money. I've split the ages into four groups: young players (age 25 or younger), players in their prime (26-29), aging players (30-33), and old players (34 and older). The Braves' likely roster will have 19 players in the first 2 groups (counting Brandon Beachy) and just 7 in the last 2. The salary division is similarly weighted toward youth:
That's pretty much what you want your team's salary curve to look like. If it's weighted more heavily toward older players, the team will likely have injury and underperformance problems. If it's weighted too much toward younger players, though, that'd indicate a team that's not likely to compete (like this year's Marlins). Most other contenders' salary curves will look similar to the Braves'. For instance, look at the 2013 salary curve for the Braves' main competition, the Nationals:
The Nats are spending a bit less on young players than the Braves, and a bit more overall, but the general trend is similar: spend the most on players near their peaks and supplement with cheap phenoms and guys who aren't too far over the hill.
The pennant-winning Phillies teams of 2008 & 2009 had a similar-looking curve. But then the franchise signed a bunch of their core players to long, huge extensions and imported even more high-cost, aging players (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee again, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence). That worked great for a couple seasons, though there were no more World Series berths.
In 2012, though, seemingly all of those players got old at once. Now the franchise is hoping that everyone can stay healthy and have bounce-back years. Such a hope is not impossible--there's a ton of talent on that roster--but it's asking an awful lot. Certainly the Phillies would love to have a breakdown more like the Braves' or the Nationals'. As is, they are spending about twice as much as the Braves for a team that seems less likely to contend than Atlanta.
As Frank Wren and the Braves' front office think about what the team will look like in 2014 and beyond, they would be wise to keep in mind the lessons of the 2012 Phillies. Fortunately, the Braves seem to be in pretty good shape along those lines. Here's their projected breakdown for the 2014 season (assuming modest raises for arbitration players and no re-signings of free agents):
I think it's fairly likely that the age 30-33 group will get filled out a bit, either by re-signing Brian McCann or by replacing him. Other than that, though, the curve shouldn't change much, barring a big trade. The 2014 Braves team will still be spending most of its resources on young or in-their-prime players.
The picture gets a bit more cloudy as you get to 2015 and '16, but you get the idea. The Braves should be successful as long as they invest more in younger players than older ones (though a few contracts for older veterans won't hurt, and could easily help).
As payroll is freed up by departing players or added from new revenue sources, the Braves will be able to afford more investments in prime-age players. That hopefully means extensions for Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and other members of the Braves' young core. The Braves have so many players who aren't even in their prime years yet, and those are exactly the kinds of players that you should be willing to give big-money extensions to.
I think some of this philosophy was apparent in the recent Justin Upton trade. Though they traded away several prospects, the Braves got the younger of the two main pieces, with Upton (25 in 2013) replacing Prado (29). Rather than extend Prado into his decline phase, the Braves got a player who likely hasn't had his best years yet. Upton, in addition to being a MVP-type talent, is also a much better bet going forward than Prado, simply based on his age.
I know that a lot of Braves fans wish that the team had the free-spending ways of the current Dodgers or the former Yankees. Honestly, though, I'm not sure the team would be much better off. If money is no object, a team is a lot more likely to make bad investments (one could argue the Dodgers are well down this path, with 2/3 of their outfield devoted to albatross contracts).
Those bad investments may not hinder further moves, but they certainly can affect the on- and off-field product. For example, even if the Yankees had an infinite payroll, the Alex Rodriguez contract would still be a problem for them because of his declining performance and the bad press that follows him around like a loyal puppy.
Would I like the Braves' payroll to be a little higher? Sure--another $20 million or so per year would give the team the ability to more easily withstand a failed contract. But the team is doing damn well as it is, and I think a big part of that success lies in the wise decisions the front office has made in allocating their limited resources. Perhaps the strict circumstances forced them to think more wisely, and act more creatively, than they otherwise would have.
Many teams have not responded as intelligently to their limited payrolls, of course. However, as long as the Braves remain successful--and they seem to be in a good position for at least the next few seasons--I see no reason to complain about the status quo.