Two years ago, I was hoping that the Braves could lock up one of Marcus Giles or Rafael Furcal for the long term because I really enjoyed having the two of them manning the middle of the infield for the Braves. Last year, I was assuming that Giles would end up leaving the Braves after the 2007 season in the same way that Furcal left after 2005: in a blossom of insane free agent dollars from a team with more money than sense like the Cubs or Dodgers. Today, Giles is gone without a peep, as the Braves declined to offer him arbitration because they didn't want to pay him roughly $5M.
First and foremost, this is another bad sign for the direction of the team under Time-Warner (and possibly Liberty Media, if they have a hand in decision making as owners-in-waiting). In December 2002 when the Braves had to offload Kevin Millwood for pennies on the dollar because they couldn't afford to keep him and Greg Maddux, I first recognized that the Braves were not operating as a big market team anymore. And so it's been for the past four years, as the club has waved goodbye to Gary Sheffield, J.D. Drew, Rafael Furcal, Javy Lopez, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine because, on each occasion, the team did not have the resources to compete with a bigger market team. In the past two years, the situation has gotten so dire that they lost the much-beloved Julio Franco to the Mets (and he wasn't exactly expensive), they lost Tom Glavine despite the fact that he apparently wanted to come back because they couldn't even make an offer for him, and now they've lost Marcus Giles because they couldn't fit a $5M contract into their payroll.
I've always shied away from the "corporate ownership sucks!" line of thinking, mainly because the Falcons were always the worst-run franchise in town and they were family owned for years, but it's getting hard to ignore the fact that Time-Warner is bad for the team. Either that or Braves fans are finally being punished for lukewarm attendance. Oh, and the third factor is that TBS used to be a huge asset for the Braves, but because of declining ratings and MLB jacking up the rights fees for national cable systems, it no longer provides Atlanta with a significant revenue stream.
The worst aspect of the Braves' extreme tightfistedness is that revenue is apparently exploding for the rest of baseball. Because of new revenue streams such as satellite radio and web broadcasts, as well as good deals from ESPN and Fox, teams are rolling in money right now. Furthermore, a new labor deal has made teams more confident in the long term sustainability of those revenue streams. Apparently, those factors apply to every team in baseball other than the Braves, who are now in the worst of all worlds: they are becoming more penurious as the rest of baseball is becoming more profligate. (When I get angry and have a beer, I start whipping out the $.50 words like nobody's business.) There are two possibilities here:
1. The Braves really aren't generating as much local revenue as they should as the result of declining TV ratings and lower attendance. 14 divisional titles created a sense of ennui in the fan base and Time-Warner is feeling it in the bottom line.
2. Time-Warner isn't treating the Braves as a cash cow without investing anything in them. The team could be a profitable operation, they could be creating revenues in ways that only someone with an LLM in tax law would understand, or they could be a loss leader for Time-Warner, but regardless, Time-Warner is making money from the team and isn't ploughing the money back into baseball operations. Or maybe they figure that Schuerholtz is such a magician that he doesn't need frivolous items like payroll or a second baseman to win games.
I suspect that we have a combination of both factors going on right now.
As for the baseball implications of the move, I'll start with the fact that Marcus Giles hadn't panned out like we all hoped he would after the 2003 season. That said, it's idiotic to let a pretty good second baseman go when he wasn't going to be paid that much and the free agent market is completely insane right now. If Juan Pierre (5 years, $45M), Jason Marquis (3 years, $20-28M), and Dannys Baez (3 years, $19M) are all cashing in with major deals, then what are the Braves doing letting a younger, cheaper player go with nothing coming in return? If the market is such that average to below-average players are getting major deals, then how are you letting an above-average player go? (Giles, in the worst year of his career, was 15th in the majors in OPS for second basemen.) The fact that the team is seriously considering Kelly Johnson, who, despite being the subject of my man-crush in 2005 because of his batting eye, is an outfielder coming off of Tommy John surgery, as a replacement at second base is a significant concern. And, uh, remember that Wilson Betemit guy that we gave away last year? You think he might have come in handy now? The Braves have been able to get away with substandard offensive performances from their corner outfield spots for the past two years because they get good offensive performances from defensive positions like centerfield, catcher, and the middle infield spots. In the words of Yoda, now, matters are worse.
I'm also going to point out that Giles is likely going to rebound in 2007, at least to his 2005 numbers, if not to the 2003 output that caused Baseball Prospectus to refer to him as a potential MVP down the road. Giles' on-base percentage fell last year from .365 to .341, but his walk and strikeout rates were almost the same and his dip in homers from 15 to 11 was not huge. Translation: he was unlucky on balls put in play. Some team is going to get a bargain with Giles, although the way the free agent market is going, he might go for $12M per year, in which case he isn't much of a bargain. (I kid with that last number, but who knows in this market?)