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The Braves are somewhat notorious for inking severely team-friendly extensions with their pre-arbitration players, to the point I’ve used their past work in this arena as an example of how young players end up pushed into signing deals they feel like they have to sign. Ronald Acuña Jr. was clearly an elite player in the making even as a rookie, and the Braves signed him after that initial season to an eight-year, $100 million contract — the largest-ever extension for a player with less than one year of service time. That sounds like a big deal, but again, Acuña was expected to be the kind of player who would someday command over $300 million on the open market, so, as significant as this deal was, most of the risk really was still on Acuña’s side, not Atlanta’s.
Unlike the Acuña one, where you can at least go, “hey, $100 million is still an absurd amount of money,” the Ozzie Albies extension is maybe the worst one a player has ever signed. As I wrote at the time, the issue was that it made sense: for Albies to accept, for the Braves to offer. It’s a horrid deal, and while Albies isn’t a star like his teammate, he still served to deprive himself of the kind of arbitration payments a player of his caliber could pull in, and was forced to do so because of how changes to international free agency shifted leverage and payouts away from the players, how little minor-league players are paid, and how teams have tried to erode confidence in free agency, and, in turn, the arbitration process its values feed into.
Which brings us to the Michael Harris II extension, announced by the Braves on Tuesday night. Harris, like Acuña before him, is having himself quite the rookie season, and Atlanta locked him up already, with an eight-year, $72 million contract. There is a $15 million club option for 2031 that includes a $5 million buyout, and a $20 million option for 2032 with another $5 million buyout attached. That $72 million figure actually includes the first buyout, so, if the 2031 option is picked up, it’s nine years and $82 million, then either $87 million all told or $102 million depending on if the 2032 option is bought out or picked up.
It’s honestly difficult to complain too much about this contract, even for me. I mean yes, my default stance is that players should reject team-friendly deals and bet on themselves to maximize their earnings, because they aren’t in this process alone, and precedent matters a lot. But if you’re going to sign a team-friendly extension, this is a pretty good one. Harris isn’t necessarily expected to be an Acuña type, though, his 2022 season, both in the minors and in the majors, has seemingly removed some of the variance from his projections — his pre-season ETA for the majors looked more like 2024 due to him being more tools than production at that point, until he suddenly started mashing in the high minors and was promoted, then continued to mash. So the Braves are getting a team-friendly deal, for sure, but they’re also committing to paying at least $72 million to a player who has looked like ahead-of-schedule, actualized potential for all of three months in the bigs. The option years aren’t terrible, either, at a combined value of $35 million for two, and he has a buyout for both years, something Acuña didn’t manage in his own negotiations.
Again, my preference is to wait things out — arbitration is just a few short years away, after all! — but this looks like a best-case scenario for a player actually signing one of these deals. Now, not every contextual issue that led to Albies and Acuña signing right away has been resolved, not even close, but it should be pointed out that Harris was in a better negotiating position than they were, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement. He received a $548,000 signing bonus when the Braves drafted him in the third round in 2019, and while minor-league pay is obviously awful, he at least didn’t spend years and years on the farm before making it to the majors: Albies and Acuña were both international free agents, who were signed younger and spent more time in the minors because of that — not only did they receive lesser bonuses than Harris, but they had to stretch them out longer, while dealing with the international systems that leech that money from these kids to begin with. I don’t love that the Players Association agreed there could be an international draft, but I do respect that they at least wanted it to be on par with the domestic one, given the imbalances that exist between the current systems in place — imbalances that favored Harris here, but imbalances nonetheless.
It’s not proof alone that the new system works, by any means, but it’s still a positive to see one of the first high-profile cases since the new minimum was put into place work out like this, especially given Harris’ circumstances that could have worked against him in talks. It helps, too, that, unlike at the time Albies’ and Acuña’s deals were signed, we know the Braves are actually spending the savings they get from these team-friendly extensions, and not just pocketing them. It doesn’t excuse the pocketing they used to do, no, and they still could spend more, but all in all, the environment seems significantly different than even a few years ago, and that’s worth noting. Some NL East teams win a World Series and then act slightly differently, is all I’m saying.
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