They were all acquired by the Braves via trade, with two or less years remaining until they became agents. Also, in each case the Braves gave up prospects who were currently or would eventually play in the major leagues. For two years of Sheffield, the Braves traded Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez, and Andrew Brown. For Drew (and Eli Marrero) , the Braves traded Jason Marquis, Ray King, and Adam Wainwright. For one year of Hudson, the Braves traded Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer, and Charles Thomas. For Teixeira (and Ron Mahay) the Braves traded Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Beau Jones, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, and Neftali Feliz.
That list includes many high-level prospects, but the acquired players are all quite good. But there is another angle on these deals that I think is interesting. In all cases, the Braves attempted to use their exclusive negotiation window to sign the acquired player to a long-term extension. In three cases, the Braves were rebuffed and the player left as a free agent. Here is a summary of what happened to each player.
Although they are trimming their payroll, the Braves have stated a desire to re-sign Sheffield. But their bid of about $10 million per season is well below what the Yankees reportedly are offering. (AJC, 11/30/2003)
Sheffield would eventually sign a three-year, $39 million deal with the Yankees; thus, the Braves were offering nearly 25% less than his eventual market value.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have agreed to a $55 million, five-year deal with with Drew, who hit .305 with 31 homers and 93 RBIs for the Braves last season. …The Braves wanted to re-sign Drew, but Boras didn’t even respond to the team’s initial contract offer of what was believed to be about $25 million for three seasons. (AJC, 12/24/2004)
Drew reached a five-year, $55 million deal with the Dodgers, from which he would opt out after three seasons. For the three years that he was in Los Angeles, he received $31 million. The Braves offer for this same time period was about 20% less than what he got. After opting out of his deal with the Dodgers, Drew received a substantial raise by signing a five-year, $70 million contract with the Boston Red Sox.
“Teixeira said he had been “open” to hearing offers from the Braves all season, but got none. Wren said the Braves didn’t believe they could re-sign him after making an “aggressive” offer during spring training and having it rejected.
The GM said the offer would have made Teixeira one of the game’s highest- paid players. (AJC, 7/30/2008)
Now, we don’t know exactly what the Braves offered Teixeira, but “one of the game’s highest-paid players” is an empty PR statement that we all should ignore. A deal that averages what he turned down from the Rangers—$144 million over eight years, which translates to $18 million per year—would have made him sixth-highest paid players in baseball. The Braves had to be aware that a similar offer wouldn’t get the job done. This is also significantly less than the $20+ million/year deal that he is currently seeking. I estimated that he would be worth $24 million per year in a six year deal.
If the Braves offered him $19 million per year, that would fit with the Braves’ deficits in offers to Sheffield and Drew. That’s a lot of money, and it’s hard for anyone to sympathize with a player who receives a salary of that magnitude. However, someone will be reaping the financial returns of his good play. Is it so wrong that a player wants the revenue he is generating, especially after he played baseball for six years for a salary that was far below what he was generating in income to club that owns his rights? If you favor limiting player salaries because they are too high, then you need to ask yourself why you favor making owners, who are far wealthier than players, even richer.
The only player in the group whom the Braves have held onto is Tim Hudson. One factor that may have swayed Hudson, was his connection to the area. He grew up in nearby Columbus, Georgia, where he followed the Braves. J.D. Drew grew up in Valdosta, Georgia, but Valdosta is a solid four hours from Atlanta, and could easily secede to Florida and no one would notice. Tex went to Georgia Tech; but so did my sister, and she lives in San Francisco. As far as I know, Gary Sheffield doesn’t much like anything, and I suspect he doesn’t care much about geography. It seems that the hometown discount was the deciding factor…or was it?
The Braves signed Hudson to a four-year $47 million extension, which averages out to $11.75 million per year. Since that time he has been worth about $10.5 million per year in revenue, according to my estimates that are based on his play on the field. The estimates take into account both the growth in league revenue and playing time.
Why didn’t the Braves sign these players?
The reason that a team negotiates a contract before it is up is to take advantage of a player’s willingness to forgo risk. Most humans will sacrifice a higher probabilistic income for a guaranteed lower income. The Braves used this tendency to sign Brian McCann to a long-term contract that bought out years of potentially high-salary arbitration awards and free agency. Why didn’t this strategy work with three of the four players who turned the Braves down?
I believe the answer is because these players share two important characteristics: they were already quite wealthy, and they were close to becoming free agents. Gary Sheffield had accrued $93 million in salary from his baseball employers. J.D. Drew had received $17 million. Mark Teixeira will have banked $35 million before he hits the free agent market this offseason. By comparison, McCann’s $750,000 signing bonus and approximately $500,000 in major-league salary that McCann had received over the previous 1.5 seasons made him a pauper. What if he was seriously injured in a play at the plate in 2007? $1.25 million isn’t chump change, but it’s nothing compared to what he could expect to receive in the future and he’s not set for life.
The problem is that the Braves went after these players too late. These guys were already wealthy, and didn’t mind bearing a little risk in order to make a good bit more money during free agency, which was just around the corner. And for all three players it looks to have been the smart move—Teixeira’s fate is still uncertain, but he’s probably only improved his market value this season.
But what about Tim Hudson? Yes, he signed the contract; however, it seems that the Braves offered him his free-agent market value. No deal. If anything, the Braves overpaid Hudson despite the fact that Hudson has been a good pitcher (I like Hudson).
In conclusion, if the Braves have been actively trading for soon-to-be free agents in order to obtain an exclusive negotiating window, it hasn’t worked. The reasons why the strategy has failed are that players reached a point in their careers where they were willing to take on a little risk to shoot for a high return.
I grant that it is easy to criticize these deals in hindsight, and I admit that this problem wasn’t easy to spot at the time that these deals were being discussed. However, the experiences should serve as a lesson for all organizations why an exclusive negotiating window just before free agency isn’t all that valuable.