Inside the extensions that turned Atlanta into a perennial contender

It was mid-summer 2022, and Michael Harris II was still wondering how much of the season he’d spend in the majors when a clubhouse attendant approached him to say that Atlanta Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos wanted to speak with him.

The Braves’ top prospect turned 21 a month before Opening Day that season and debuted for his hometown club in late May — to instant success. By the All-Star break, he had an OPS of .816 while patrolling center field for the reigning champions en route to Rookie of the Year honors.

Still, he was “very surprised” when it turned out that Anthopoulos wanted to talk to him about his playing time in Atlanta not over the next few months but over the next decade. Anthopoulos asked Harris — then the youngest player in the majors, less than two months into his big-league career — if he would be interested in exploring an extension with the Braves.

“He asked me if it’s something that I would be willing to do, something I’m comfortable with,” Harris recalled in spring training this year. “He said, ‘No pressure.’”

Shortly thereafter, the Braves announced that they had signed Harris to an eight-year, $72 million contract, with club options that max out at $102 million over 10 years. Harris had started the 2022 season in Double-A and by mid-August was set to spend the rest of his 20s playing for the only team he’d ever loved while making life-changing money.

“Just kind of crazy,” he said.

The model modern organization

Two weeks before announcing the Harris extension, the Braves handed out the largest contract in franchise history to Austin Riley — a guaranteed 10-year, $212 million deal with an option for an 11th year. Five months before that, in March 2022, they extended Matt Olson for eight years at $168 million less than 24 hours after acquiring him in a trade that effectively replaced free agent and longstanding face of the franchise Freddie Freeman. Both are from the South – Olson from Atlanta, Riley from Mississippi – and were a few years away from hitting free agency.

Two months after the Harris extension, the Braves extended the man who would finish second to Harris in Rookie of the Year voting. Early extensions are uncommon for pitchers, yet before Spencer Strider’s first postseason concluded, Atlanta inked the deceptively overpowering right-hander (hometown: Knoxville, Tennessee, three hours from Truist Park) to a six-year, $75 million contract. After the 2022 season was over, the Braves traded for catcher Sean Murphy and, like they did with Olson before him, signed him to a six-year, $73 million contract before he ever donned an Atlanta uniform.

The Braves’ propensity for team-friendly extensions for core players was established in 2019, when they signed then-22- and 21-year-old dynamos and famous friends Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. to contracts that drew ire from the industry for seemingly settling for far below market value. Or, to put it more bluntly, in Albies’ case for being “the worst contract ever for a player.”

The more recent Braves deals have generally been considered closer to market value and more in line with what extensions are: a guarantee of money and stability for a player at the expense of some potential future earnings. Still, especially taken in conjunction with the earlier outliers, the Braves’ spate of extensions — seven in total, covering 53 seasons worth $735 million at a minimum or 63 years worth $895 million if all options are exercised — represent an incredible coup for the organization. The best team in baseball has assured itself cost certainty and a core of players capable of winning more than 100 games for seasons to come.

As we’ve written before, Atlanta’s top eight position players by fWAR — Acuña, Olson, Riley, Murphy, Harris, Albies, Orlando Arcia and Marcell Ozuna — are signed through at least 2025, and only Ozuna is over 30 years old. The top six are signed through at least 2027. Strider, the team’s best pitcher and a Cy Young contender down the stretch, is 24 years old and signed through 2029.

The answer to why the Braves seem so formidable is that they have lots of really talented players locked up for years to come. How they did that, however, is the real question. Is there a differentiating circumstance or strategy? Is it simply intent and good fortune? Has it become a self-perpetuating process, wherein the presence of so many long-term commitments makes Atlanta an especially attractive destination?

Ever since his arrival in Atlanta, Anthopoulos has made the Braves into the model modern organization. How?

‘It’s so weird how it worked out’

First, you have to identify and acquire top talent. You can build a perennial contender out of contract extensions only if you have the right players. Scouting, drafting and developing All-Stars are the subjects of numerous stories, so we won’t concern ourselves too much with that process. Suffice it to say, a productive pipeline is necessary to build sustainability.

But the Braves look for more than just on-field potential when assessing players — and more than the oft-cited makeup as well.

“I’m from Atlanta. I have a lot of family there,” Harris said of his eagerness to commit to the organization. “Grew up loving this team, know about the history of players that have been here and cross paths with this team.”

“I’m from the Southeast,” said Strider, who graduated from high school in Knoxville and went to college at Clemson, two hours away, “so it’s a familiar location, and there’s a lot of personal reasons like that that go into it.”

“She’s got family here,” Riley said of his wife, Anna. “So, you know, she was obviously very excited.”

Olson is from Atlanta proper. He could get from his high school, where his number 21 is retired, to Truist Park in under an hour. Even when he was playing for the Oakland A’s, he and his now-wife, Nicole, spent the offseasons in Atlanta. Toward the end of the 2021 season, they bought a house in the area, despite Olson’s having another year under contract with Oakland. That offseason, they got married. And the following spring, the Braves acquired him and offered a long-term deal to stay in Atlanta.

“It’s so weird how it worked out,” he said.

Think this doesn’t apply to Murphy, whose hometown is listed as Peekskill, New York, and who attended high school in northern Ohio?

“I have some family in Atlanta. So we knew Atlanta,” he said recently. “Thanksgiving the year before, we were down in Atlanta.”

The proclivity for players with a personal connection to the area has not gone unnoticed, and it’s hardly nefarious. Giving guys an opportunity to spend the bulk of their careers — and have some guaranteed stability — near family and friends is almost a public service in an industry as unpredictable as professional sports. It’s also just one part of a player’s profile that the Braves take into account when assessing how likely he is to accept an extension.

Alex Anthopoulos has built MLB's most dominant team around a core of young players who will be in Atlanta for years to come. (Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images)
Alex Anthopoulos has built MLB’s most dominant team around a core of young players who will be in Atlanta for years to come. (Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images)

‘With Alex, I know he did his homework’

“You have to have an agent that’s willing to do it,” said Dave Dombrowski, the president of baseball operations for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Dombrowski has worked in front offices since the ‘70s and was named to his first general manager job in 1988. The Phillies are the fifth organization for which he has run baseball operations.

“I know that the Braves have a real big thought process on that,” he said, “even to which players they take and don’t take based upon agents.”

In 2019, Acuña and Albies agreed to contracts that immediately looked like gross underpayments. Acuña’s eight-year, $100 million extension that maxes out with club options at 10 years, $134 million made him the youngest player to sign a nine-figure deal, but it now represents a steal for the player making history with his rare combination of speed and power. (Following the 2022 season, Acuña changed representation.)

Albies’ deal was far more egregious; including team options, the Braves bought nine years of his services for a mere $45 million.

In an effort to explain how such a deal could happen, ESPN laid out the agent landscape that April. The larger agencies that represent the majority of MLB players do not depend on a single deal to keep them solvent. Smaller agencies might be more motivated to cash in when they can, especially if they’re concerned about losing a future star to one of those bigger agencies.

“The incentive, then, to do an extension can be strong for smaller shops — Albies employs one in agent David Meter — which also fear client-poaching from larger agencies,” Jeff Passan wrote at the time. “Executives know this. When considering players to draft, a number of teams bake into their valuation a player’s agent — and the openness to a potential extension.”

The sense around the industry is that the Braves put a particular emphasis on exclusively pursuing players whose agents are amenable to extensions.

“If Matt was represented by maybe a different agency — or more than just a very small handful of agencies — it likely wouldn’t have happened in this way,” said BB Abbott, who represents Olson. “There was a comfort level and mutual trust.”

Abbott was referencing his unique relationship with the Braves. He got into the industry by representing his childhood friend Chipper Jones, an icon in Atlanta who still works for the team. That relationship and the way Abbott believes it allowed both sides to expedite negotiations was undoubtedly a factor Anthopoulos considered — not just when it came to offering Olson an extension but also in getting as far as trading for him.

The acquisition of Olson also signaled that Freeman would not be returning to the Braves after 12 years and a championship in Atlanta. The failure to work out a deal with the homegrown first baseman was a huge disappointment to Braves fans. But in Olson, Anthopoulos found an opportunity to offset that frustration, provided he could introduce the hometown kid as someone who was there to stay.

“He likely would not have made this trade if he didn’t think that there was a real shot of us intently listening to and considering a long-term deal like this,” Abbott said of Anthopoulos. “So, with Alex, I know he did his homework on that front.”

It’s no secret or surprise that it takes a level of accord and business alignment among organizations and agencies to work out nine-figure deals. The Braves’ extensions have all been done with players represented by smaller agencies (Abbott’s Jet Sports was acquired by industry giant Wasserman three months after the Olson deal was announced).

In recent years, the Braves have rarely employed players represented by Scott Boras, baseball’s super-agent to the stars whose players tend to test free agency. No one on their current 40-man roster is represented by BorasCorp, and the Braves are the only team without a player on this list of BorasCorp clients. It could be considered a conspicuous discrepancy. (Atlanta’s most recent notable Boras players weren’t long-term pieces: Dallas Keuchel pitched for the Braves in 2019, and Touki Toussaint threw 145 innings across four seasons ending in 2021.)

Anthopoulos denied that the Braves avoid BorasCorp players. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of their clients, and we’ve been engaged every offseason in their free-agent clients and have had meaningful negotiations on specific ones over the years.”

Boras, for his part, said: “Alex and I have been involved nearly every offseason in dialogue for free agents. We communicate regularly.”

That said, he doesn’t deny that a player’s representation can factor into the advice they get when it comes to considering early-career, long-term extensions.

“BorasCorp has negotiated over $12 billion in contracts, and teams do not question our focus or intentions for the player,” Boras said by way of comparison to the agencies the Braves tend to deal with. “We are exclusively about the players’ best interest, and teams know we can afford our principals.”

Ultimately, the decision to accept an extension rather than test free agency comes down to a unique cocktail of factors for each player and situation. What Anthopoulos and the Braves seem to excel at is stacking the deck in favor of acceptance with as many factors as they can control.

“I’m sure if you go year by year, you can probably make more money at the end of the day,” said Olson, who is leading the majors in home runs in what would’ve been his walk year. “But some things are bigger than that.”

Still, pursuing players (and agents) who might be predisposed to extensions is just the first step.

‘What are your long-term views of being here?’

After the surprise wore off, Harris was appreciative that Anthopoulos asked him directly about an extension.

“It shows how much he really cares for the players and how much he really wanted me there,” Harris said. “Him coming straight up to me, being straight-up about it and asking the question, [it] made it easier.”

“We were playing here,” Strider said earlier this year in Atlanta. “[He] just pulled me into Snit’s [manager Brian Snitker’s] office while the team was out here.”

Strider’s agent had told him something like this might be on the horizon after the Harris extension came together so quickly following his debut. Still, Strider “wasn’t expecting it. Generally, pitchers of my age don’t get that opportunity. So certainly grateful and surprised that they thought that highly of me.”

This is a throughline with the current Braves core. Nearly all of the players Yahoo Sports spoke to said they first heard about the team’s interest in extending them from the general manager himself. (The exception is players who were extended essentially before they joined the team. Olson couldn’t remember if he heard it first in one of the calls with Anthopoulos or with his agent in the hours after the trade; Murphy remembered it coming from Anthopoulos but wasn’t sure.)

Albies, whose contract comes the closest to crossing the line between savvy and exploitative, is among those who was approached by Anthopoulos directly to open negotiations. But both he and his agent, David Meter, declined to comment on the experience or the contract itself.

This is tricky territory. The CBA is clear about who can officially represent a player in contract negotiations. What’s murkier is whether asking a player how he feels about staying with the team long-term amounts to a negotiation. To be fair, the Braves are not the only team to do this, and executives themselves differ on the etiquette of it. But Boras worries that a player’s initial reaction to a team’s overture could impact the negotiation before he has spoken to his representation.

“For attorneys, it is frustrating. I cannot offer baseball players the same protections from direct contact regarding contract terms I can offer other real-world clients,” he said. “The CBA offers no protection in this area, and future negotiations need to address this issue to ensure players have a true right of representation. A player should have his contract terms explained and his reaction thereto in complete confidence with his legal counsel.”

The agents representing the players involved in these extensions seem aware of that concern, but they also concede the reality that in baseball, the executives have access to the athletes every day.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Strider’s agent, Darek Braunecker, said. “I mean, as long as they’re not trying to negotiate with the player.”

“I feel like there are not many GMs like Alex, very personable. Like, I have no problem going up and having a conversation with him, which is nice,” Riley said. “And that conversation was more or less of just like, ‘Hey, what do you think of Atlanta? What are your long-term views of being here?’ That kind of conversation.”

In answer to that, Riley, who was 25 at the time and playing in the second straight season in which he would garner down-ballot MVP votes, told him: “Love it. Honestly, love it.”

‘It just feels like everybody’s well-being is most prioritized’

Anthopoulos actually approached Riley twice.

In 2022, MLB was still catching up to the lockout-stalled business side of the game when the season got underway. Arbitration hearings would have to take place during the season, which meant negotiations with arb-eligible players were still going on after Opening Day.

It was Riley’s first time going through the arbitration process, and while the two sides were discussing the one-year deal it would take to avoid going to a hearing, Anthopoulos came up to Riley during a road series at the end of April. Riley gave the go-ahead to open negotiations to a larger extension, but the two sides failed to settle on a number at that time, and ultimately, the Braves won out in arbitration.

Later that summer, after Riley played in his first All-Star Game and with the trade deadline approaching, Anthopoulos again asked if he could talk to Riley’s agent about a long-term deal. Riley again gave him the go-ahead.

This time, Anthopoulos and the agent discussed a deal that would be significantly longer and more lucrative than what they talked about earlier in the year. Olson’s eight-year, $168 million deal with a $20 million option for a ninth season had been a franchise record when he signed it just a few months prior, but the Riley negotiations blew past that into the $200 millions.

At some point, Anthopoulos made it clear that the Braves — now in uncharted territory as far as financial commitments — were making their max offer. The money they were offering Riley would go toward keeping other players if he turned it down, and they likely wouldn’t be able to afford him later, as he approached or reached free agency.

And when he considered what it would mean to enter the market after his time with the Braves ran out, Riley realized there weren’t many places outside Atlanta that he wanted to play. Turns out, that’s a big part of building a roster out of long-term contracts: You have to create somewhere players want to stay.

“Obviously, success is gonna be No. 1,” Olson said. “Guys aren’t gonna want to stay if it’s not a good environment, a winning culture, but that’s clearly the case here.”

If that’s the first consideration, the second might be how the team treats players’ families, for which the Braves received nothing but praise.

“The family coordinator in the front office reached out to her immediately,” Murphy said about how his wife experienced the transition after the trade from Oakland, “and she was blown away with the generosity and the help they provided.”

“I’m speaking from an ignorant perspective of not being anywhere else,” Strider said. “But yeah, it just feels like everybody’s well-being is most prioritized, and that’s reflected in the amenities that we have and the lengths people will go to to improve things and the fact that everybody considers players’ opinions and the staffs’ opinions.

“And obviously, the fan environment is top-notch.”

‘He’s a bit of a cowboy when it comes to certain things’

In so many ways, the Braves’ unique roster construction is irreplicable — and not just because their geographically broad fan base has given the team a wide swath of childhood Braves fans to choose from.

Spending the kind of money involved in long-term contracts, even if they’re done early in players’ careers, takes ownership support. And it takes a head of baseball operations who trusts his team’s self-scouting enough to gamble many millions of dollars on small-sample-size results.

“It’s just a personality trait with this guy. He’s a bit of a cowboy when it comes to certain things, and he believes in his players,” Braunecker said of Anthopoulos. “His conviction is as strong as any general manager in the game, and with that, he has a real desire and a willingness to act on it and keep those guys in the fold as long as he can.”

As a matter of fact, not every team wants to sign rookies to long-term deals.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry,” said Dombrowski, who has a well-earned reputation for building winning teams out of established (and expensive) talent. “That’s the way I’d describe it.”

Thus far, the Braves have been right or lucky or both. And they’re able to employ this strategy now because it has worked so well thus far; it’s a self-sustaining machine. The Albies and Acuña deals secured almost a decade of dual-All-Star (if not MVP) production for below-market value. Even years later, that frees up payroll for the organization to play with elsewhere. And with each subsequent extension — even if the dollar value is only slightly less than what a team might pay on the open market for a player of that caliber — the Braves buy themselves more success and more wiggle room in the budget. And that translates to a welcoming environment.

For now, at least. As the Braves cruise to another postseason appearance with baseball’s best offense — and Strider competing for a Cy Young — these contracts look like steals. But even at a good deal, they’re serious money. This year, the Braves are projected to go over the competitive balance tax threshold for the first time, despite not signing any marquee free agents, because a team’s payroll for CBT purposes is based on the average annual value of contracts, not how much a player is paid in a particular year. It’s all well worth it for Atlanta while everyone is young and healthy and performing. But the production side of the ledger could look very different on the back end of these contracts. That’s the team assuming risk, and it’s a risk some organizations aren’t comfortable taking.

Under Anthopoulos, though, the Braves have been.

“We believe in the players. We want to keep the players in Atlanta long-term,” Anthopoulos said. “But we also recognize the risk of performance and health — no one’s immune to the risk of that. No one plans to get hurt, no one plans to have bad seasons, and it happens. It’s a hard game. So that was the decision we had to make.

“And we ultimately chose to make it.”

After Riley signed his record-setting contract, which came together in a matter of days after Anthopoulos reengaged his agent, there was one last step: the news conference to announce it.

“At that point, ‘cause I don’t like talking in front of people, I was nervous at the beginning,” Riley said. But then he noticed that a bunch of his teammates — guys he had committed to spending the best part of his career playing alongside — surprised him by showing up.

“That was pretty special,” he said.

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