Steve Garvey, Davey Lopez, Bill Russell, and Ron Seay are known for filling the Dodgers’ four positions from June 1973 through the end of the 1981 season. No infield has stayed together longer in major league history.
In addition to their longevity, The Infield is notable for the relatively late period in baseball history in which they achieved their feat. Their careers were not black and white. Free agency existed for most of their eight-year run. Most of the people who grew up watching them are still alive.
The tenacity of The Infield and other popular duos and trios of teammates creates a false structure. It’s easy to forget that they are exceptions to the rule of average major league careers that are shorter and more fleeting than the eight-year runs of Garvey, Lopez, Russell and Seay.
And yet, we do not romanticize the traveler. Gary Sheffield is still outside the Hall of Fame looking in. Carlos Correa’s one season in Minnesota won’t be more memorable than Reggie Jackson’s one season in Baltimore. The more good players a team can keep together for longer, the better their chances of sticking in the collective memory of their fans.
All this is a roundabout way of asking. what exactly are the atlanta braves doing?
On Tuesday, two weeks after they traded catcher Sean Murphy to the Oakland A’s, the Braves signed him to a six-year contract extension that runs through the 2029 season. Notably, Atlanta already has three other players under longer contracts. first baseman Matt Olson through 2030, outfielder Michael Harris II through 2032 and third baseman Austin Riley through 2033.
Pitcher Spencer Strider’s contract with Atlanta runs through 2029. Shortstop Ronald Acuña Jr. (2028), shortstop Vaughn Grissom (2028), second baseman Ozzie Albies (2027), and pitchers Kyle Wright (2026) and Max Fried (202) make up the lineup. a slightly different poker hand than Garvey, Lopez, Russell and Seay, but the Braves will be playing a lot of cards that have been dealt the same amount of time.
We won’t really know what the Braves are up to until these contracts are cleared to play. Today, the front office may aim to keep the team’s young core for years to come. A rebuild may be deemed necessary tomorrow, in which case one or more of these contracts may be attractive to another team because they are relatively affordable.
By far the better question. Is this really good for baseball?
It is easy to say that 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, can leave behind their envy of a team with a projected $194 million payroll.
The trend of the rich getting richer is nothing new for MLB. What? is what’s new is how Atlanta distributes its dollars, investing relatively little in other teams’ top players and a lot in its own. Another front office might have adopted this team-building strategy in the past if they found the perfect blend of homegrown talent and an unwillingness to test free agency among those players. Perhaps the Braves were just the first to arrive at a well-charted spot.
Free agency fans may also be upset by this development. By cutting down on future free agents, the Braves made almost every offseason over the next 12 years a little more boring. That means a little less intrigue for fans of teams that can’t develop the next Olson, the next Harris, the next Riley. Their free agent markets never had hope.
Some interested parties in the ranks of the Football Association will always be surprised 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, rather than by negotiating a long-term deal with their current team. Many players have signed such contract extensions. Rarely, if ever, do they all re-sign with the same team.
The MLBPA does a good job of reminding the few players successful enough to create generational wealth how free agency came to be; Now, Olson and Murphy may never sign a free agent contract in their lives. Others have deferred their right to test the open market. Who knows how much Grissom or Albies could stretch the market price for every other free agent middle infielder a few years from now?
But this question concerns relatively few people. Fans of major and mid-market teams have strength in numbers. Most of them are old enough to remember the days before free agency, when teams typically kept their best players for 10 years or longer. This may all be news to younger fans.
Young or old, it’s fun when you can buy your favorite player’s jersey and know (with some degree of certainty) that 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” of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams. Now, in theory, Atlanta has its core nine.
The experiment may not work out for the Braves or their fans. The risk of signing a long-term contract goes both ways. All players under long-term contracts are currently 20 years old. Grissom and Harris are both 22 years old. Akunya is still only 25 years old. None of them passed the age of 36. Age should not be prohibitive, but there is a non-zero chance of a career change that threatens their projected success.
If successful, the Braves’ model could inspire other teams to follow their lead. It wouldn’t be new, but it will be news to this generation of baseball fans who can make their own judgments in time.