It’s no mystery that I’m not crazy about the business decisions made by the Atlanta Braves’ leadership in the last few years. When I arrived in Atlanta, the Braves were a playoff team. Three years later, they’re a fourth-place team in their own division, nearly unrecognizable both in terms of record and roster. So many familiar faces are gone (only five players on Atlanta’s 2013 40-man roster remain, and the best of that bunch, Freddie Freeman, is the subject of daily trade rumors, while three of them might not belong on any major-league roster), and the team’s new, suburban stadium project, which was wrong-headed from day one, isn’t looking any better at last check.
I’m willing to concede that reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of the Braves’ recent management decisions, though. The problem for proponents of the Braves’ plan to put a winner on the new field in 2017, all other attendant circumstances be damned, however, is that they aren’t even doing that right:
The Braves are set to move into a new, publicly funded stadium in Cobb County in 2017, and even if the rebuild goes smoothly, they seem unlikely to be in a position to win by then. There’s an unwritten rule to the art of stadium-building that says if you’re going to use the public’s money to fund shiny new digs (and you bet the Braves are), you at least have to make a good-faith effort to put a solid product on the field. The Braves are trending in the opposite direction, cutting payroll and trading off cornerstone players while construction crews are turning the $672 million SunTrust Park from blueprint to reality.
On average, a team’s payroll increased 21 percent the year it moved into a new stadium, and it jumped a staggering 57 percent during the four-year span prior to Opening Day in the new park—there’s some plain ol’ inflation mixed in there, but much of the increase is due to owners willing to shell out big contracts in exchange for the discount on a franchise-altering stadium deal.
It typically costs money to build winning baseball teams, and spend money is what teams usually do when they want to have a winning team playing its home games in their new stadium. Atlanta, by contrast, has been reducing payroll in all of its recent transactions. In other words, they aren’t doing the thing other teams do when they’re doing the thing the Braves say they’re doing.
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