Anthopoulos says Braves payroll big enough, but farm system crucial

Dec 12, 2017
Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Atlanta Braves new GM Alex Anthopoulos takes questions from the media during a press conference introducing him on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, at SunTrust Park in Atlanta.

The Braves haven’t said where their 2017 payroll ended up by their own accounting or divulged a targeted payroll for 2018, but new general manager Alex Anthopoulos said it will remain at a similar level and that there are enough dollars to make it work.

He wouldn’t specify that payroll figure, but said it was made clear to him by ownership.

“I know what the payroll is right now and I’d love to say it, and you (reporters) will end up doing the math (and figuring it out) anyway,” he said. “But there could be additions during the season.”

The Braves’ 2017 opening-day payroll started at about $120 million and toggled between $115 million and $130 million, depending who was doing the calculating, what was included – 25-man roster or 40-man roster, benefits, etc. -- and at what point in the season. 

Based on current salary commitments, the Braves could have upward of $30 million to spend this offseason on additional 2018 salaries if the payroll remains the same.

The team would like to improve its starting rotation and bullpen and possibly find a short-term third baseman, though they also seem comfortable going with versatile Johan Camargo at third base in 2018 if they can’t add a suitable upgrade who wouldn’t require a long-term commitment (they don’t want to block power-hitting third base prospect Austin Riley, who could be ready in 2019).

Improving the team defense in any way possible has emerged as a priority with Anthopoulos in charge.

The Braves’ 2017 payroll was near the middle of the pack or slightly below, according to most experts, including Cot’s Baseball Contracts, which said the Braves’ opening-day payroll climbed from $86.6 million in 2016 to $122.6 million in 2017. Several others calculated the Braves’ 2017 opening-day payroll at $112 million, which ranked 19th of 30 major league teams.

Anthopoulos, who took over as Braves GM and vice president one month ago, is at the Winter Meetings that began Monday. He and his top assistants have already met with the agents of multiple free agents -- “Clearly we haven’t found a price that we like yet, but that could change fast,” he said – and Anthopoulos pointed out that such discussions are why it makes sense for the team not to publicize its payroll target or limit.

“Just because we’re obviously in a forum where we’re negotiating with agents and so on, it’s a lot easier when they can’t do the math along with you when we’re negotiating a deal,” he said. “It’ll come into focus. But look, I’m really happy with the resources that we have. I’m not one to ever (complain) – to me, this is what we have to work with, we’re going to make things work, whether it’s a high number, low number. ... 

“But I’m happy with the number that we have. It’s certainly plenty to do what we need to do.”

The Braves’ payroll might be barely half of the majors-leading payroll lavished by the Dodgers, for whom Anthopoulos worked for the past two seasons as vice president of player development. Before that he served six seasons as GM at Toronto, where he said the payroll was $135 million when he left and since had risen to $165 million.

The comparatively small Braves payroll only underscores the importance of developing the team’s own players to fill some roles at inexpensive rates for years before those players reach their arbitration years and approach free agency. That’s one reason he will be “cautious” in his approach to any trade involving young Braves talent during his first season with the team.

With the Braves, Anthopoulos inherited a farm system that was ranked No. 1 in baseball last year and likely will still be ranked second or third, even after 12 prospects were stripped from its ranks when MLB levied severe penalties against the Braves and former general manager John Coppolella for infractions committed in signing international free agents.

“If we do our job (in baseball operations), I do think the upside is pretty big” with the Braves, Anthopoulos said. “Look, every team will tell you, scouting and development is going to be so important. Just to be able to plug in those guys that make the minimum is huge.”