The Braves should sign Mike Foltynewicz to a long term contract.
If you’re a Braves fan, the name alone probably brings an opinion to your mind. Bust. Future. Superstar. Wild. Emotional. Overrated. Underrated.
The 26-year old pitcher the Atlanta Braves acquired from the Houston Astros in 2015 for Evan Gattis and James Hoyt is entering a crucial year for his career. In his past 2 years at the Major League level, Folty has been the epitome of unpredictable. His splits vary from month to month, sometimes lefties have dominated him, sometimes he’s owned them. Then suddenly right hand hitters come out of nowhere to be back on top of his stuff. In one month, he goes from being one of the best pitchers in baseball and nearly completing a no-hitter, to forgetting how to throw baseballs the very next month.
Ridiculed as being “too emotional,” Foltynewicz, is a fiery 6’4” 220 lb. righty that brings the heat. He often sits in the upper 90’s well into the sixth or seventh inning, when he lasts that long. His numbers follow his performance pretty accurately, sporadic to say the least. Since joining the Major League rotation, he has seen a dramatic increase in his Homerun/Flyball rate, he’s been caught accidently tipping pitches, and at times he seems to forget how to pitch in certain counts.
All of that being said, I still think the Braves should sign him to a minimum of a 5 year, $37 million dollar deal.
Well my papa used to tell me, “Boy, you make hay while the sun shines.”
For those of you who have never baled any hay in the south, you cut it when you don’t expect rain… often even if it’s not completely ripe and 100% ready to be cut. Because perfect hay is worthless if you can’t get it up off the ground without it getting wet. If it rains on hay, you have to ted it all back out (using a machine to re-scatter it), wait on it to dry in the sun, rake it again, and then bale it. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate and you can lose the whole crop because of too much rain.
Baseball contracts for mid-market teams are like baling hay. You make hay while the sun shines. Meaning, if you’re a mid-market team, like the Atlanta Braves, who really can’t compete with the ‘big boys’ on huge salaries and contracts, then you have to find a way to gamble on the hay while the weather is nice. Right now, the weather on Mike Foltynewicz is really nice.
The Braves currently have Folty under team control for 4 more years. This is his first year entering arbitration and he is going to get either $2.2 or $2.3 million. This sounds pretty cheap, but when you look at how arbitration figures scale it gets a bit more complicated. $2.2 million for one year certainly isn’t a bad deal, but when you realize someone like Arodys Vizcaino received roughly $850,000 for his first year you realize that $2.2 million for a first year arbitration guy is not cheap.
Arbitration scaling is a bit wonky to say the least, but basically each year it scales up based on performance, league comparisons, and which year of arbitration you are in. Josh Donaldson just received $23M for his final year of arbitration from the Blue Jays. You can see, simply having team control doesn’t automatically mean a cheap contract.
But why should the Braves sign Folty to a 5-year deal? Julio Teheran may have the answer.
Julio Teheran is what mid-market teams dream of. It’s not that he’s the best pitcher ever; I would even argue he’s probably not a #1 starter on most teams – more of a 2 or 3 sort of guy. But if there is one thing Frank Wren did right for the Atlanta Braves, it was signing Julio Teheran to a 6-year, $32.4 million dollar deal back in 2014. That contract is a gold mine (regardless of his divisive 2017 numbers).
Much like Ender Inciarte’s deal, that John Coppolella negotiated, buying out a young player’s arbitration and giving them a serious deal with your team can be brilliant. Especially for mid-market teams. When Frank Wren locked up Julio Teheran long-term, he had completed just one year of pitching for the Atlanta Braves. One year. While his year entering arbitration had been a bit more consistent than Folty’s was, it’s also important to remember that he had a serious baseball staff behind him that made the playoffs. He was backed by arguably the best modern day defensive shortstop in Andrelton Simmons, had Justin Upton and Evan Gattis smashing homeruns, and Craig Kimbrel closing it down.
If you put Folty in front of the same kind of staff that Julio had in 2013, I think you’d see quite an uptick in his numbers. Not to mention the fact that at times last year, Mike was the closest thing to a number 1 starter the Atlanta Braves had, and often got matched up that way. Mike is a big guy that has never had serious injury concerns. He did have a fluke blood clot steal some weight and time from his first season, but as far as the arm is concerned he’s had no real issues. He’s built big, and he threw 150+ innings last year and probably could have thrown more had his control been a bit better and had Manager Brian Snitker been a bit slower with the hook. He’s a power pitcher who is going to eat innings, a lot of them.
As a mid-market team, the Atlanta Braves have to make gambles to increase the value of their assets. Julio Teheran will be paid $8 million to pitch for the Braves in 2018. On the open market, even if evaluated as a #2 or #3 starter, it is quite easy to imagine him getting $15M+ per year (probably higher). That is a lot of value in a long-term contract that the Braves can either happily sit on and be content to pay someone much under what they are worth, or they can trade and reap quite a bountiful harvest in prospects and other players based on his value. Either way, for the Atlanta Braves, Julio Teheran is a gold mine.
This is why the Braves should lock up Mike Foltynewicz, yesterday. And there is reason to speculate this may be just what they’re doing. When the Braves and Folty filed for arbitration literally $100K apart, many Braves fans rolled their eyes. However, this feels fishy. It feels like both parties may have simply said “just file a number while we get a bigger deal worked out.”
If the Braves paid Folty a front-loaded deal, meaning the more expensive years were on the front side of the contract, I think the Braves could create another Julio-type gold mine. Five years for $37 Million is roughly $7.4M a year. This sounds expensive compared to the $2.3M he could make this year, but if you balance it all out and Foltynewicz hits as a true #2 or #3 innings eater, you have struck gold. On top of this, if the Braves front-load the contract so they pay him the most now, while they have some payroll flexibility, it allows them to absorb the cost and manage the risk of the contract in years to come.
If you look at the state of contracts in MLB in the last 5 years, you will see what I mean. In 2012, the average MLB salary was $3.21Million; in 2017, $4.47 Million. Those numbers don’t sound too far apart, but when you look at it through another lens that is an increase across the board of nearly 72% (stats from Statista). That is insane. Next offseason, arguably the best class of free agents to ever hit the open market will do so, and there is little doubt that average salary numbers are going to continue to skyrocket. If I told you that I could sign a player for about 25% over his current value for the next 5 years that sounds silly, but if I then explained that across the board salaries were going to go up 75% so that at a minimum you were looking at a 50% savings by the end of the contract, I think you would sign up in a heartbeat and that’s the basis of my argument.
Of course the fear is, what if Foltynewicz is a bust? The Atlanta Braves paid R.A. Dickey $7.5M last year at age 42 to pitch for them and be mediocre at best. They paid Bartolo Colon $12M at 43 years old to be complete trash for them. I would much rather see a guy like Folty working through bumps with a chance to build value while eating innings, than guys from a nursing home trying to pad their retirement fund with zero chance of them creating future value.
The other thing about Folty is this – his stuff is still really good. He is not a very cerebral pitcher. He’s not going to out-think too many guys, he’s not Greg Maddux and he’s not going to set you up in the first because he’s got a plan of attack for you in the seventh. But his fastball is legit. Let’s say he bombs out as a starter. A guy that can throw 98 in the 8th on his 106th pitch can easily touch 100 if you move him to the bullpen to throw 20 pitches. Not to mention a bullpen role would allow him to narrow his pitches to a smaller mix, and only face hitters one time. (Mike’s stats currently seriously suffer his second and third time through the lineup).
If Folty busts out and is forced into the pen, the contract still isn’t trash (especially if you front load it). If he develops into a top-tier reliever, you might still have a golden contract; if a mid-level reliever, he might be slightly overpaid, but at the rate of inflation in Major League contracts, even that is doubtful. If he is a total bust, then sure the contract stings, but at the end of the day it’s $37M over 5 years. This isn’t the biggest financial hit this team would have taken by a longshot (see Melvin Upton, Dan Uggla, Matt Kemp, etc).
For mid-market teams, you have to take gambles to make up the gap in money. The Braves have made some really smart financial gambles over the years, like Teheran, Freeman, and Inciarte. I think Mike Foltynewicz should be another one. He’s not perfectly ripened, he’s still a little green in places standing in the field, and there is a risk he won’t be quite as good as the hay down the street, but sometimes you have to mow the hay and bale it while it isn’t raining before it’s perfectly mature. I don’t know if Foltynewicz should be in the Braves rotation 3 years from now, or even in their bullpen, or even on the team, but what I do know is that if you make hay while the sun shines you’re more likely to feed the cows come winter. And if the Braves sign Folty to a long-term deal, they’re more likely to enjoy the value that contract creates than to regret the minimal risk associated with it.