Television could be Braves’ downfall

sports@macon.comJanuary 25, 2014 

This past week, the New York Yankees signed free agent Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract. He’s a pitcher who has never even thrown a major league pitch. The Yankees spent a total of $470 million this offseason on free agents, including former Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann.

Last week, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Clayton Kershaw to a seven-year, $215 million contract. Both the Dodgers and Yankees are expected to have a payroll of more than $200 million this season.

Meanwhile the Braves signed 37-year-old starting pitcher Freddy Garcia to a minor league contract Friday. Atlanta’s other two acquisitions this offseason were not major moves. They traded for utility man Ryan Doumit and signed starting pitcher Gavin Floyd, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and won’t be ready until May.

The Braves not only allowed McCann to leave as a free agent, but also Tim Hudson, who has been the team’s best starting pitcher for the past seven years, and reliever Eric O’Flaherty, who was the best setup man in baseball before he had elbow surgery last spring.

On top of all of that, the Braves are haggling with arbitration-bound Jason Heyward over $300,000, which is petty cash in baseball these days.

Welcome to the new world of baseball economics, where the haves can make major moves and the have-nots simply can’t.

There are several tough angles for this story for the Braves. First, each major league team is getting an additional $25 million per year from the new national television contracts. That’s why many teams are making moves. They are using that extra money to improve the roster.

But the Braves’ payroll reportedly is going to stay at the range it has been in for a decade now -- between $90 and $100 million for this season. Team owner Liberty Media is evidently not allowing the front office to use even half of the new extra money to improve the team. If it was, that payroll would be up and we’d see more significant moves.

It is undoubtedly going to another “project,” specifically the new stadium. The Braves spent $34.2 million Friday to purchase the land where the new stadium will go in Cobb County. With the player payroll staying the same, we can probably guess where that money for the land is coming from.

But the main problem is the local television contract for the Braves. Time Warner (the former owner) signed a 25-year deal before the 2007 season (and as it was selling the team to Liberty) that nets the Braves a speculated amount of less than $20 million per season. That is chump change compared to the outrageous amounts other teams are now getting in new deals.

For example, the Dodgers’ new local television contract is reportedly giving the team $250 million per season. The Philadelphia Phillies just signed a new deal that will pay $100 million per year. Even the Houston Astros are getting $80 million per year in their new local television contract.

This is what will separate teams in the coming seasons. If teams are getting a lot of money from their local TV contracts, they’ll have a significant advantage over teams like the Braves that are not getting as much revenue.

How can the Braves consistently compete if the teams around them are making four to 10 times more from their local TV deal? They probably won’t be able to, and in turn, they will have to rely on developing their own talent and operating more like the Tampa Bay Rays than the Dodgers or Yankees.

Of course, it handcuffs the team when it is burdened with bad contracts, like the deals for Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. When a team has two players who hit below .200 last season scheduled to make a combined $26.45 million this year, it is going to be limited in what it can do with a budget that cannot exceed $100 million.

The Braves hope the new stadium will help compensate for the bad television deal, and it might. They will have additional revenue that they do not have now, but can that make up for the huge difference in what they get from their local TV deals compared to other teams?

Probably not, and that’s why it’s unlikely the Braves can keep all of their young players like Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel. One or two might have to be traded, as the payroll is already stretched thin and those three are going to want a fortune to stay in Atlanta.

It’s amazing really. The thing that made the Braves one of the most popular teams in baseball -- television -- could now be the one element that makes it tougher for them to compete moving forward.

It doesn’t look like Ted Turner is walking through the door to buy the Braves any time soon, so this organization must be creative in constructing a team that can consistently compete, despite the unfortunate financial limitations.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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