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Hoornstra: Will Atlanta Braves’ ‘Core 9’ strategy benefit baseball?

Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey are famous for manning the Dodgers’ four infield positions from June 1973 until the end of the 1981 season. No infield stayed together longer in major-league history.

Besides their longevity, The Infield is remarkable for the relatively late period in baseball history during which they achieved their feat. Their careers did not play out in black and white. Free agency existed for most of their eight-year run. Most people who grew up watching them are still alive.

The persistence of The Infield, and other famous duos and trios of teammates, create a false construct. It’s easy to forget that they are the exceptions to the rule of the average major-league career, which is shorter and more transient than the eight-year run of Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey.

And yet, we do not romanticize the journeyman. Gary Sheffield is still outside the Hall of Fame looking in. Carlos Correa’s one season in Minnesota will be no more memorable than Reggie Jackson’s one season in Baltimore. The more good players a team can keep together longer, the better their chances of sticking in the collective memory of a fan base.

All of this is a roundabout way of asking: What exactly are the Atlanta Braves doing?

Tuesday, two weeks after they traded for Oakland A’s catcher Sean Murphy, the Braves signed him to a six-year contract extension that lasts through the 2029 season. Remarkably, Atlanta already has three other players under contract longer: first baseman Matt Olson through 2030, outfielder Michael Harris II through 2032, and third baseman Austin Riley through 2033.

Pitcher Spencer Strider is also contracted to Atlanta through 2029. Outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. (2028), shortstop Vaughn Grissom (2028), second baseman Ozzie Albies (2027), and pitchers Kyle Wright (2026) and Max Fried (2024) amount to a slightly different poker hand than Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey, but the Braves will be playing many of cards they were dealt just as long.

We won’t really know what the Braves are doing until these contracts are allowed to play out. Today, the front office might intend to keep the team’s young core together for years. Tomorrow, a rebuild might be deemed necessary, in which case one or more of these contracts might be attractive to another team because they are relatively affordable.

The better question for now: Is this really good for baseball?

It’s easy to say there is no objective truth, that the answer depends on your point of view. Fans of small-market teams – like the Oakland A’s, who traded Olson and Murphy to Atlanta instead of signing them to long-term contracts – might be left to stew in their jealousy of a team with a projected $194 million payroll.

The trend of the rich getting richer is nothing new to MLB. What is new is how Atlanta is distributing its dollars, by investing relatively little in other teams’ best players, and a lot in its own. Another front office might have adopted this team-building strategy before, if it found the perfect confluence of homegrown talent and an unwillingness among those players to test free agency. Perhaps the Braves were simply the first to arrive at a well-charted location.

Fans of free agency might also grouse at this development. By reducing the pool of future free agents, the Braves made nearly every offseason for the next 12 years a little more boring. That means a little less intrigue for fans of teams who cannot develop the next Olson, the next Harris, the next Riley. Their free-agent markets never had a chance to spring hope.

Some interested parties within the ranks of the Players’ Association will always bristle at the news of another long-term extension. There is an unspoken pressure among players to take the most lucrative contract available to them – usually found on the open market, not by negotiating a long-term deal with their current team. Many players have signed similar contract extensions to these. Rarely, if ever, do they all re-sign with the same team.

The MLBPA does a good job reminding the few players lucky enough to make generational wealth how free agency arose: through strategic patience, sacrifice, legal battles, and shrewd negotiating by the late Marvin Miller. Now, Olson and Murphy might never sign a free-agent contract in their lives. The others have delayed their right to test the open market. Who knows how much Grissom or Albies might have extended the market price for every other free-agent middle infielder a few years down the road?

But this question is relevant to relatively few people. Fans of large- and mid-market teams have power in numbers. Many among them are old enough to remember a time before free agency, when teams routinely employed their best players for 10 years or longer. For younger fans, this might be all new.

Old or young, it’s fun to be able to buy a jersey of your favorite player and know (with some reliability) you can wear it to the ballpark for at least the next six years and see Your Guy on the field. The dynastic New York Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s had their homegrown “core four” of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite and Bernie Williams. Now, in theory, Atlanta has its core nine.

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The experiment might not work out – for the Braves or their fans. The risk of signing a long-term contract runs both ways. All of the players under long-term contract are currently in their 20s. Grissom and Harris are 22. Acuña is still just 25. None of them are signed past age 36. Age should not be prohibitive, but there is a non-zero chance of a career-altering injury threatening their projected success.

If it succeeds, the Braves’ model might inspire other teams to follow their lead. It wouldn’t be anything new, but it will be new to this generation of baseball fans, who can render their own verdicts in time.

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