Sean Murphy hops on Braves’ long-term extension train, with Alex Anthopoulos as engineer

Sean Murphy hops on Braves’ long-term extension train, with Alex Anthopoulos as engineer


One has to think that if Dansby Swanson had debuted with the Braves a few years later, there’s a good chance he would have a long-term contract extension now with Atlanta.

That is because Alex Anthopoulos, Braves general manager and president of baseball operations, has been handing out lengthy, lucrative extensions at a dizzying pace since this past spring — six- to 10-year extensions to five players worth a guaranteed $600 million, not counting option years. The latest was Tuesday — a six-year, $73 million extension for Sean Murphy, two weeks after the Gold Glove catcher came from Oakland as the focal point of a three-team trade.

Those long extensions, as well as two others Anthopoulos gave Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies back in April 2019, all have something in common: They went to players who excelled early in their careers and still had multiple years of arbitration remaining — Acuña and Michael Harris II had less than one year of service time — and the contracts bought out all remaining arbitration years and some free-agent years in every instance.

In each case, the players left millions of potential dollars on the table at the back end of the deals — in some cases more like tens of millions — in order to be in a place they wanted to play and to have the long-term security of guaranteed money regardless of what happens over the course of the deals.

Murphy, 28, did his first interview Wednesday since the extension and was asked about agreeing to a long-term deal so soon after being traded to the Braves. He’s widely considered to be among the top-five overall catchers in baseball, with some rating him not far behind Phillies star J.T. Realmuto in overall skills.

Murphy, with three years left until he could’ve been a free agent, signed a six-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of just under $12.2 million.

“A bunch of things,” Murphy said of his reasons for signing right away. “I immediately felt comfortable by the staff in Atlanta, and it was reassuring — the conversations that we had with people — that this is a good place to commit to. I’ve had glowing reviews from former teammates, and everyone has good things to say about it. So I felt comfortable jumping into these negotiations with Alex and trying to get something done.”

The $73-million guarantee is equal to what Yasmani Grandal got in a four-year deal from the White Sox in November 2019 at age 31. Willson Contreras, the former Cubs All-Star catcher who is 2 1/2 years older than Murphy, signed a five-year, $87.5 million free-agent deal last month with St. Louis that has an AAV of $17.5 million.

Murphy, a cannon-armed defender who hit 35 home runs over the past two seasons with the A’s, led American League catchers with 5.1 fWAR in 2022, according to Fangraphs, and was second among MLB catchers to Realmuto (6.5) last season. Going back to Murphy’s first full season in 2020, he has 10 fWAR to Realmuto’s 12.6, those two ranking ahead of the Dodgers’ Will Smith (9.7) and Contreras (7.2).

The Braves say they plan to keep respected veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud, a first-time All-Star in 2022 in his age-33 season, and have Murphy and d’Arnaud share duties in 2023, when d’Arnaud will make $8 million in the second season of a two-year contract that includes an $8 million option for 2024 with no buyout.

Murphy’s deal included a $15 million club option for 2029 with no buyout, which could push the total to $88 million over seven years.

“I told Sean (Tuesday) night that I was excited that he was willing to stay,” Anthopoulos said. “When we got him, I told him hopefully he’s here for a long time, but we were happy having him for three years (before free agency) if that was what the deal was going to be. But if it made sense to do something long term, we were going to look to do that.

“So we reached out about doing it, and really I would say the last 48 hours it got momentum and we really locked in and were able to get something done.”

Like his former Oakland teammate Matt Olson, an Atlanta-area native who was traded to the Braves in March and then signed an eight-year, $168 million extension within 24 hours of the deal, Murphy said it was a nice to know where he would be playing for a long while, rather than worrying about his team rebuilding and trading any player with a significant salary at anytime.

“It feels great — I would say that’s one of the biggest advantages, the biggest pluses,” Murphy said. “My wife’s looking forward to having a spot where she feels comfortable at least being for a while. It is important to us, and it’s one of the factors that we thought about.”

And it’s one of the factors that the Braves have used adroitly — sign players, several of them just married or engaged, to long-term deals that provide plenty of security, peace of mind and generational wealth to them and their families, and assure the player that he’s going to be playing for a team that plans to do what it takes to keep winning and contending year after year.

The Braves have won five consecutive NL East titles since Anthopoulos came to Atlanta, and their 2021 World Series title was the city’s second, and first since 1995.

The long-term extensions have become an important part of the process for Anthopoulos. The Braves had a payroll among the majors’ bottom third when he took over and have steadily increased it, along with revenues, to the point where the team’s current projected $198 million payroll ranks eighth in the majors and its $239 million projected luxury-tax payroll ranks fifth behind the two New York teams plus San Diego and Philadelphia.

Beginning in March and continuing through October, the Braves gave long-term extensions to Olson, followed by Austin Riley at midseason for 10 years, $212 million, Michael Harris II for eight years, $72 million, and Spencer Strider for six years, $75 million.

Now, Murphy.

“It feels unique,” Murphy said of the players on the roster with long contract extensions, including Acuña and Albies. “You look at that list of players and you like everything about it. Those guys are awesome, and it’s an honor to be included in that mix with those guys. But going forward, I can’t imagine this team being anything but great for the next several years.”


Murphy hit a career-high 18 home runs in a career-best 148 games in 2022. (Ken Blaze / USA Today)

MLB uses average annual value of contracts to determine payroll for luxury-tax purposes, and one result of the Braves’ giving out so many long-term extensions is that the AAV of those deals is significantly higher for a few years than the actual cash outlay for that particular season.

But the Braves have their own budget and it’s what Anthopoulos operates under. For instance, the $10 million buyout the Braves paid Jake Odorizzi as part of a trade that sent the pitcher to Texas in November goes on the Braves’ 2022 budget for their own accounting and Anthopoulos’ undisclosed payroll limit, though MLB includes it in 2023 payroll computations.

Not long after being hired in November 2017, Anthopoulos immersed himself in Atlanta’s sports landscape. He’s a knowledgeable fan who watches and attends Hawks and Falcons games with his young son. He came to the conclusion that fielding a consistent contender is paramount in Atlanta, even more than in many places.

“I just think as I’ve become more comfortable in Atlanta, I understand the marketplace, the division, everything else — you have to be fluid in these jobs,” Anthopoulos said of using long-term extensions. “These guys, we think they’re going to be very good players. Yeah, there’s no guarantees and they certainly need to go out and perform and stay healthy. But I’ve said this before, too: I think it’s important for a fan base, as well.

“You (reporters) ask what I worry about the most, and it’s the sustainability piece. I see how well the organization is being run, from (Braves presidents) Derek Schiller and Mike Plant and obviously (chairman) Terry McGuirk overseeing all of us, what they have going on on the business side of the operation. And I feel like, from a baseball operations standpoint, we have to pull our weight. We have to put a good product on the field every year, no matter what. And part of that is the sustainability piece. We don’t want to be in a position where we’re talking about having to trade guys away because they’re getting close to free agency, or that we can’t sign them.”

The Braves now have a core of players secured for the better part of a decade at six of eight fielding positions, along with the flame-throwing phenom, Strider. Harris signed his big extension in August, less than three months after his MLB debut and two weeks after Riley was extended with the largest contract in franchise history.

Harris’ extension could be worth up to $102 million over 10 years with the additional club options for $15 million in 2031 and $20 million in 2032, which have $5 million buyouts. In October, Strider signed an extension potentially worth $92 million if a $22 million option is picked up in 2029.

Whew.

“I’d say more this summer, we were more aggressive in getting guys signed earlier than I normally would have liked,” Anthopoulos said. “Ideally, you want to wait as long as you can, get as much information, have guys play more, know more about their health and so on. But obviously there’s a give-and-take to that. And I do think, a lot of these guys do want to be here, and I think that means something. I think it comes across to the fans, I think it comes across to everybody that they enjoy being here. And that’s a reflection of the staff, from Snit (manager Brian Snitker) to the coaches, to the support staff. And obviously the fans as well — it’s a great atmosphere, no doubt about it, and the winning is a big part of it.”

Anthopoulos is a Montreal native who started his career working for the Expos and first became a GM with the Toronto Blue Jays. He believes his background also played a part in leaning so hard into long-term extensions.

“Growing up as a Montreal Expos fan, having seen a lot of players leave, I’m sure there’s a little part of me that I know what it was like (when) our good young players were getting traded away or that they couldn’t keep them,” he said. “So I think there’s a small part of me that feels like, from a fan base, it’s important to know that you can buy a jersey and these guys are going to be here for a while.”

He got that strategy rolling in 2019 with the Acuña and Albies extensions, both of which drew astonishment around baseball for how relatively modest the deals were and how much more each player might’ve gotten if he’d waited for a bigger offer from the Braves or waited for arbitration and free agency. Acuña, who was 21 at the time and coming off a resounding first season in which he won NL Rookie of Year by a huge margin over Juan Soto, signed an eight-year, $100 million deal that has a pair of $17 million options ($10 million buyouts) that would push the total to $124 million over 10 years.

And while Acuña’s deal is a relatively paltry sum compared to some others since signed by top young major leaguers, Albies’ deal drew even more stunned response — a seven-year, $35 million guarantee for a second baseman who had produced 69 extra-base hits (24 homers) in an All-Star season in 2018. Albies’ deal has two club options that would push it to $45 million over nine years.

Both Acuña and Albies have missed significant time in the past two seasons due to injuries, Acuña for a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee in July 2021 and Albies in 2022 for a broken foot followed by a broken pinkie in his second game back from the injured list. Nevertheless, those two contracts figure to be extremely team-friendly deals when all is said and done.

And it’s worth noting that in none of the extensions, including the five given to Braves’ players this year, is there a single-season salary of more than $22 million. Acuña’s salary tops out at $17 million.

“Look, there’s risk to it,” Anthopoulos said. “You can look at our own team, we’ve had elite young players get hurt at the same time. Mike Soroka was right there in the Cy Young conversation (before the) unfortunate thing that happened to him (a twice-torn Achilles that has sidelined Soroka since August 2020). Obviously Acuña, who’s just a dynamic, young, exciting superstar player. Or guys have down years. So, there’s risk to this, no doubt about it, when you lock yourself into this. That’s the trade-off — you’re guaranteeing, you’re committing.

“But look, we do like the fact that guys can just worry about going out and playing, they don’t have to worry about making a certain salary and certain statistics and so on, and that they know they’re going to be here. So there’s a few components: One, the fan base can buy a jersey and feel pretty good about it — that’s not the reason you do it, but certainly a nice thing to add. There’s continuity and stability for the organization, for the lineup, across the board.”

Anthopoulos added, “I know the word ‘culture’ has been used a lot, and I don’t necessarily love the word. But I think the continuity we have in the (locker) room, those are the guys that set the tone. And, it’s a good place to play and a competitive team. So, by all these guys staying, hopefully it ensures that we stay competitive. Assuming, one, they stay healthy; and two, they continue to perform. That’s not always a given, as much as these guys are talented and they’re great people and they work hard. No one plans on having a bad year, no one plans on getting hurt, but it happens. You’re dealing with human beings.

“So, it’s a model that we’ve employed. I think it’s important for us, for the parameters that we have, for the market we have, for what we have to work with. It doesn’t mean if I was a general manager in some other city that I would feel the same way, but I do believe everything you do should be team-specific, and in my view this is what works for the Braves.”

(Photo of Anthopolous: Troy Taormina / USA Today)





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