Atlanta has its first World Series title since 1995, which happens to be the year right before the Yankees began their dynasty with four championships in five years. Those New York teams of 1998-2000 also are the last repeat champions baseball has had.
And Atlanta is going to join the century’s club of defending champs who fail to defend.
World Series MVP Jorge Soler is a free agent this winter. So are the rest of the outfielders Atlanta added in the middle of the season: Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, and Eddie Rosario. And, of course, so is first baseman and 2020 MVP Freddie Freeman, having reached the end of his eight-year, $135 million contract.
Atlanta has an estimated $124 million on the books already for next year, including $15 million dedicated to Ronald Acuña Jr., whose return from injury obviously will be a boon to the lineup, but whose days of being heinously underpaid are over (he’ll now just be wildly underpaid).
For a team in the nation’s seventh-largest media market, with a following throughout the South even if the TBS-fueled days of national prominence are in the past, $124 million might not seem like that much. There should be room to spend more. But Atlanta has never had an Opening Day payroll of more than this past season’s $131 million, and it’s not like they’ll be pressed to spend out of desperation to win with this group since they’ve already won.
Freeman is the key here. He’s 32 and has two options: stay in Atlanta and play out the rest of his career, secure that he’ll be a legend there forever, or get the money he’s worth on the open market.
If Freeman stays in Atlanta, even with a hometown discount, the team’s budget is not going to be flexible enough to put together a championship team. Keep in mind that this Atlanta team only won 88 games and won the National League East through an equal mix of Alex Anthopoulos’ shrewd trades and the Mets and Phillies spending August and September stepping on their own dicks.
If it’s not New York or Philadelphia figuring out how to resolve their bouts of cranio-rectal fusion, the Nationals still have Juan Soto and money to burn, and the Marlins are a lot closer than people think to one of their cyclical contending years. The National League East is tough to win, and as fun as it is to mock “financial flexibility,” it’s definitely a factor for a team that doesn’t go all out on spending. Re-signing Freeman blows up Atlanta’s budget, regardless of what one thinks of the budget as a concept.
If Freeman leaves, well, there’s an obvious enormous bump in the road to a repeat, because Atlanta isn’t going to bring in a player of Freeman’s caliber for less. Acuña’s pay raise kicking in after the expiration of Freeman’s contract makes it clear that there’s always been a plan for life after Freeman, and building around Acuña is a good idea… but again, there’s a financial reality to deal with.
Atlanta’s top two men on the 2022 payroll are Charlie Morton, who will be 38 years old and coming back from a broken leg, and Marcell Ozuna, whose next court date in his domestic abuse case is in January. Obviously, in both cases, the human condition is vastly more important, but from the straight perspective of building a 2022 roster, Atlanta has nearly 30 percent of its current payroll commitments sunk into enormous question marks.
And then there’s the other enormous question mark. Will there even be a 2022 season for Atlanta to defend its title considering the current state between labor and management? And if a CBA does get done in time for baseball to happen next spring, what will its financial components mean to an Atlanta ownership group that’s already more tight-fisted than its market size suggests?
Enjoy that parade. The next one is going to be somewhere else.