ATLANTA - Continuing a policy of tying up their young players to long-term contracts, the Atlanta Braves signed closer Mark Wohlers to a three-year deal with an option for a fourth year Wednesday.
The contract calls for Wohlers, who earned $1.425 million last season while setting a franchise record with 39 saves, to receive $3 million this year, $4.125 million in 1998 and $5.2 million in 1999. If he finishes 55 games in the third year of the contract, the option year automatically kicks in at $5.5 million. If he doesn't finish 55 games and the Braves don't pick up the option, he will receive an $800,000 buyout.
Including the buyout, Wohlers is guaranteed $13.125 million over the next four years and if the club exercises the option, the deal is worth $17.825 million.
"Obviously, (my wife) Nancy and I are thrilled with the deal," Wohlers said. "Knowing that I'm going to be part of one of the best organizations in baseball for the next three years makes me sleep better at night. I'm really looking forward to the upcoming season and concentrating on baseball and not worrying about my contract status."
Following the announcement of the deal, Wohlers pledged $10,000 to the Braves Foundation to purchase tickets for distribution to local charities. He also plans to look into donating money to charities in his hometown of Holyoke, Mass.
"This puts me in a position to do a lot of nice things for people," Wohlers said.
Wohlers, who broke Gene Garber's saves record last season with 39 saves in 44 opportunities, finished fourth in the National League in saves and fifth with 77 appearances. Since June 1995, the right-hander has been among the best closers in the games, earning 64 saves in 71 opportunities, a 90 percent success ratio.
"The contract recognizes Mark as one of the premier closers in the game and is reflective of our effort to keep our excellent pitching staff intact," assistant general manager Dean Taylor said.
Wohlers, who turns 27 next week, has Florida Marlins closer Robb Nen to thank for his deal. Nen established the market two months ago by signing a four-year, $17.5 million contract, a deal which Wohlers and his agent used as a measure of his worth.
"(Nen's contract) was a factor," Taylor said. "There is a degree of comparability between the two when you look at career saves and games finished. Both sides agreed early on that Nen's contract was sort of a benchmark. If anything, it may have expedited the process and defined the market."
In two full seasons in the bullpen, Wohlers has established himself as the league's most dominant closer. He struck out 100 batters in 77 innings last season and posted a 3.03 ERA. But his season ended in disappointment when he gave up a game-tying homer to the Yankees' Jim Leyritz in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the World Series, a blow that helped turn the Series around for New York.
Wohlers' deal may not be the last among Atlanta's young players. The club has held preliminary discussions with left fielder Ryan Klesko and catcher Javier Lopez, who are eligible for salary arbitration, about multi-year deals. Last spring the team attempted to sign the pair to long-term contracts, but both players rejected the deals, saying the offers were too low.
"We were able to work out a long-term contract with Chipper (Jones) last year and this is a similar approach," Taylor said.