The Atlanta Braves have a numbers problem. While there are only five spots in a major league rotation, the Braves are preparing for a traffic jam. It’s a good problem to have, but there does have to eventually be a solution.
Atlanta has five starters - five good starting pitchers - right now. They have a pitcher in Triple-A (Mike Minor) who probably could and maybe should be in a big league rotation. Then they have another pitcher in Triple-A (Julio Teheran) who is considered the best pitching prospect in baseball.
Plus, they have a starting pitcher from 2010 (Kris Medlen) coming back from Tommy John surgery. He may return this season, but he’s unlikely to slide back into the rotation because of those already there. Medlen will have to fight for his spot next spring if he wants to rejoin the rotation.
Then the Braves have a bevy of additional starting pitching prospects - good ones. Randall Delgado is at the top of the list, with Brett Oberholtzer, Erik Cordier, Paul Clemens, J.J. Hoover, Zeke Spruill and Carlos Perez possibly knocking on the door in the next couple of seasons.
But the intriguing issue is with two members of this year’s Atlanta rotation. Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson have both had All-Star caliber first halves of the season. Jurrjens will likely be a candidate to start the Midsummer’s Classic, while Hanson could make the team as a replacement after being bypassed Sunday.
Jurrjens and Hanson have combined for a 20-7 record and a 2.23 ERA. Just to compare, Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have combined for a 20-8 record and a 2.54 ERA.
Due to all the pitchers, the ones that are here now and the ones on the way, some have wondered if Atlanta will use that excess to help the offense with a trade (or trades) - whether it’s done this summer or in the offseason. And the question of whom Atlanta might trade is an interesting one and debated daily on talk shows and message boards.
But the decision could come down to a simple, but yet difficult, question: Can the Braves lock up Jurrjens and/or Hanson in a long-term contract?
The answer is first tied to the ownership situation. Liberty Media owns the Braves now, but there’s a chance the corporation will put the team up for sale this winter. When Liberty bought the Braves, commissioner Bud Selig made them agree to keep the team through 2011. So that’s up after this season and the team might be on the market.
If Liberty keeps the Braves, the payroll will probably stay under $100 million per season. But a new owner might bump them up near the $100 million mark, which could help in signing the young talent to long-term contracts.
That puts general manager Frank Wren in a bit of a quandary. He’s probably not sure who will own the team in the future, and therefore he probably has no choice but to plan using the same guidelines in play today. So he probably has to assume, at least for now, that the payroll will continue to be around $85-$90 million per season.
Then you must look at the flexibility in the payroll in the coming seasons. The Braves do have several big contracts coming off the books after this year and after 2012. That will give Wren the chance to offer that available money to some of his young players who need to be locked up for the long term.
The Braves will have $18.37 million coming off the books this winter. That’s assuming Nate McLouth’s option for 2012 for $10.65 million will not be picked up, which is a good assumption. That takes off the contracts of McLouth ($6.5 million), Kenshin Kawakami ($6.67), Alex Gonzalez ($2.5), Scott Linebrink ($2.0), George Sherrill ($1.2) and Scott Proctor ($0.75). It subtracts the $1.25 million buyout if McLouth’s option for 2012 is not picked up.
Jurrjens ($3.25 million this season), Martin Prado ($3.1), Peter Moylan ($2.0) and Eric O’Flaherty ($0.895) are all eligible for arbitration this winter. The total of those four contracts ($9.245) could almost double through arbitration. It might at the least take up one third of the money that is opening up due to the free agents.
Then you look at the pending increases in the salaries of Brian McCann and Dan Uggla. McCann will go from $6.5 million to $8.5 million, while Uggla’s salary will increase from $9 million to $13 million. That’s an increase of $6 million right there, which takes up another third of the money coming off the books for 2012.
That leaves about only $6 million for Wren to play with - either in improving the team or giving that money to players like Jurrjens or Hanson.
After the 2012 season, the Braves will have at least $18.12 million coming off the books. That includes Derek Lowe’s $15 million per year contract, David Ross ($1.62) and Eric Hinske ($1.5). The amount could be higher if Tim Hudson’s 2013 team option for $9 million is not picked up, which would require the Braves to pay a $1 million buyout.
Plus, there is the Chipper Jones factor. When we he retire? He could do it after this season and save the Braves $13 million for 2012. There is a $7 million team option for 2013 for Jones, and it could be kicked in with games played in 2012 or an average of the games played in 2011 and 2012. This is simply an unknown, and due to that you have to assume he will finish his entire contract unless something changes.
The biggest question about possibly offering Jurrjens and/or Hanson a long-term deal is their agent. Both players are represented by Scott Boras, an agent who rarely ‘allows’ his clients to sign long-term deals before they reach free agency.
Both players seem happy in Atlanta, but as both continue to prove they are two of the best young arms in the game, they’ll want to get paid accordingly. And Boras will only reiterate that to them on a regular basis, as he should as their agent.
The Braves have to be interested in having these two pitchers be the core of the rotation for years to come. They are going to have to gauge the interest with Boras in a potential long-term deal. If that’s just not going to happen, then Wren might have no choice but to pursue a trade at some point.
The ‘some point’ is what is interesting. Since the Braves have an inevitable logjam for the rotation, could Wren look to move one of the big two starters this winter?
Jurrjens is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2013 season. Hanson still has another full year left before he is eligible for arbitration, and he can’t become a free agent until after 2015. So Hanson will be cheaper longer and the Braves have him under control for a longer period of time moving forward.
So it’s probable that if the Braves were going to soon approach one of the two about an extension, it would be Jurrjens. They could ‘buy out’ his last two years of arbitration and possibly add three more years onto the offer, which would keep him in Atlanta through 2016 - or when Jurrjens is 30 years old.
Jurrjens is 48-30 in almost four seasons in the big leagues. He’s a Cy Young candidate this season, with his 11-3 record and league-leading 1.89 ERA. So his price tag is going to be high. It’s hard to find 25-year-old pitchers that have had his success to find comparables.
Dan Haren might be one. He signed a long-term deal with the A’s after his first full season in September of 2005. But in the middle of his fourth full season Haren signed a deal with the Diamondbacks. Jurrjens is in his fourth full season with the Braves.
Haren’s deal was a four-year contract for $44.75 million dollars, with a club option for the fifth season. The first year replaced the last year of his previous contract, and increased the deal from $5.5 million to $7.5 million. Then the second year of the newer deal replaced a club option from the previous contract. The increase was from $6.75 million to $8.25 million.
The next two seasons of Haren’s new deal, the 2011 and 2012 seasons, is for $12.75 million each year. Then there is a club option for $15.5 million, with a $3.5 million buyout if the deal is not picked up.
So would the Braves use this as a guideline for a proposal to Jurrjens? Possibly. But would he (and Boras) accept a contract that could run from 2012 through 2015, along with possibly an option for 2016, that would effectively buy out his last two arbitration years?
Well, if Jurrjens was paid an average of around $10 million for those four seasons, he would have to consider it.
There is also a potential comparison for Hanson. Again, Hanson is not due for arbitration until after the 2012 season. If the Braves came to Hanson this offseason and offered a long-term deal, they could arguably use a former top Atlanta draft pick as an example.
Adam Wainwright signed a long-term deal with St. Louis right after his second full season. He had been a reliever in his first full season (2006), so it’s hard to use his stats as compared to what Hanson has done as a starting pitcher. But Wainwright signed a four-year deal (basically wiping out his arbitration years) for $15 million, along with two additional years as club options.
Wainwright got $500,000 for the first year of his deal, which would have been the last year St. Louis had control over him before arbitration. Then he was paid $2.6 million in year two, $4.6 million in year three, and $6.5 million this year in the last year of his contract. The two option years will be pay $9 million if picked up next season and then $12 million in 2013. There are guarantees to those options that can be reached through incentives and/or appearances.
So would Hanson (and Boras) accept a similar deal? It might have to be in that neighborhood for the Braves to be interested, but would Boras hold out that if Hanson continues to be successful, a deal for him might dwarf the contract Wainwright received from St. Louis?
The Braves could just wait it out and see what happens as the two get closer to free agency. Having Boras involved may prohibit either pitcher from agreeing to a deal. But it would be odd if the Braves don’t at least approach one or both about a long-term contract.
If it appears they are not going to sign long-term, and instead want to wait on free agency, the Braves could look to trade one of them. Again, since Jurrjens is closer to free agency, he would probably be the choice. And since he’s a Cy Young candidate, the trade would be a major one if completed.
You can almost tier the pitchers into groups of two - Jurrjens and Hanson, Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson, Minor and Brandon Beachy, and Teheran and Delgado.
The Braves might find it hard to trade Lowe, considering his contract is so large and he’s now in his late 30s. Hudson is the veteran that has an affordable contract, considering his production and leadership in the Braves clubhouse. So it’s difficult to imagine Hudson being traded to alleviate the cluster of starting pitchers. Plus, having a veteran like Hudson around will be good for all the young pitchers.
Atlanta might decide to choose between Minor and Beachy for a trade. But both are under control for at least five more years past 2011. So they will have to get a significant return for either player.
The one thing you can almost bet on is Teheran being part of the future rotation for the Braves. He’s the best pitching prospect in baseball, and he’s been compared to Pedro Martinez. So he’s off limits, and the thought is Teheran will be part of the rotation no later than opening day 2012.
Delgado is an outstanding prospect that is bound to get lost in this shuffle. He’s also bound to be the first pitcher asked in many trade discussions. His value is somewhat shortchanged since he’s behind Teheran in the pecking order, but most scouts believe Delgado can be a solid number two starting pitcher in the big leagues.
And don’t forget about Medlen. He may have to eventually go back to the bullpen when he returns, but if he succeeds the Braves could be tempted to place him back in the rotation - if there is room.
So that brings us back to Jurrjens and Hanson. If they are willing to sign extensions, the Braves will likely be ready to offer a long-term contract to make both the core of the future rotation. But if the door is closed when the Braves knock, you wonder if an eventual trade of one could help alleviate the massive roadblock that is inevitable for the Atlanta rotation.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WPLA Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, GA and WCOH Fox Sports 1400 in Newnan, GA. Shanks is a columnist for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.