The Braves signed reliever Pierce Johnson to a two-year, $14.25MM extension, the club announced. (Atlanta is one of the few teams that publicly discloses contract terms.) Johnson, who was a couple weeks from free agency, is set for consecutive $7MM salaries between 2024-25 and is guaranteed a $250K buyout on a $7MM team option for 2026. For luxury tax purposes, the contract’s average annual value is $7.125MM. Johnson is a client of John Boggs & Associates.
Johnson, 33 next May, first joined the Braves in a deadline deal that sent minor league pitchers Victor Vodnik and Tanner Gordon to the Rockies. It wasn’t an especially high-profile move at the time. The right-hander owned a 6.00 ERA over 38 innings after signing a $5MM free agent deal with Colorado. Johnson had punched out a quality 30.9% of opponents with the Rox, so he wasn’t without upside, but few would’ve anticipated how resoundingly he’d turn his season around.
The Missouri State product tossed 23 2/3 regular season innings for Atlanta, allowing 0.76 earned runs per nine. His strikeout rate jumped more than five percentage points, as he fanned 36% of batters faced. His swinging strike rate spiked from a solid 12.3% to an elite 17.8% mark. He more than halved his walks and doubled his ground-ball percentage. Johnson pitched his way into high-leverage work and added three scoreless appearances in the Division Series.
Leaving Coors Field offers a partial explanation for the improved results, but it’s certainly not the entire story. Johnson has always had promising raw stuff, pairing a 96 MPH fastball with a mid-80s power curve. Upon landing in Atlanta, he dramatically upped the use of the breaking ball. Johnson turned to the hook nearly three quarters of the time as a Brave after deploying it in a near-even division with the fastball while in Denver. Given the results, it’s hard to find fault with that plan of attack.
The question is how much stock to place in two-plus months of dominance amidst an otherwise inconsistent career. Johnson had never shown anything near the level of control he did in Atlanta. He carried a career 12% walk rate in parts of six big league campaigns with the Cubs, Giants, Padres and Rockies before that trade. As a Brave, he handed out free passes to just 5.6% of opponents.
Johnson has flashed solid ability before, albeit never to the level he demonstrated in Atlanta. He turned in a 3.22 ERA over 58 2/3 frames with San Diego three seasons back. His 2022 campaign was derailed by forearm tendinitis that kept him to 15 appearances, setting the stage for his rebound deal with Colorado. Now, he has locked in the strongest guarantee of his career.
It still has the potential to be solid value for the Braves, as Johnson is being paid towards the lower end of the established range for quality setup arms in their mid-30s. Chris Martin secured $17.5MM over two years with the Red Sox last offseason, while Adam Ottavino got an opt-out clause in a $14.5MM deal with the Mets. Ryan Tepera ($14MM) and Joe Kelly ($17MM) landed similar pacts entering their age-34 campaign two years ago.
Atlanta has a solid bullpen, finishing 11th in ERA (3.81) and fifth in strikeout percentage (25.9%). They were set to potentially lose a few pieces from the group, with Joe Jiménez hitting free agency and various option scenarios for Collin McHugh, Kirby Yates and Brad Hand. The club is likely to decline its options on McHugh and Hand, while a net $4.5MM call on Yates is borderline. Re-signing Johnson locks him in alongside A.J. Minter and potentially Nick Anderson or Tyler Matzek as setup options to Raisel Iglesias. Further augmenting the middle relief seems a priority for president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos and his front office.
The Braves are up to roughly $138MM in guaranteed commitments for next season. The arbitration class could tack on roughly $30MM. Roster Resource projects their luxury tax number in the $206MM range (including arbitration estimates), around $30MM below next year’s $237MM base threshold. The organization opened 2023 with a player payroll around $203MM, so there should still be a decent amount of short-term flexibility. In addition to the bullpen, bolstering the starting staff and perhaps upgrading on Eddie Rosario in left field could be offseason goals.
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