Though the consensus across the industry remains that Braves franchise cornerstone Freddie Freeman will ultimately end up back in Atlanta, few expected Freeman to reach 2021 Opening Day — let alone the long-inevitable lockout — without a deal to keep the face of the franchise with the only club he’s ever known well into the backside of his career. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos is notorious for playing his cards as close to the vest as any GM in the game, but it would at least appear that the chances of Freeman joining friend, mentor, and recent MLBTR chatee Chipper Jones in spending the entirety of a Hall of Fame-caliber career in Atlanta have reached an all-time low.
Based on the most recent reports of the state of talks between the Braves and their sweet-swinging lefty (which came via USA Today’s Bob Nightengale and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman in mid-November), player and team are hung up on both length and value, with the Braves reportedly offering a five-year, $135MM pact and Freeman holding out for something closer to six years and $200MM. At the beginning of the offseason, MLBTR projected Freeman would ultimately land a six-year, $180MM deal, a prediction that roughly accords with how the market played out ahead of the lockout.
As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes observed in December, while there’s no obviously ideal fit for Freeman outside of Atlanta, there’s also no NL team with an established incumbent at DH, hypothetically expanding Freeman’s market to NL teams with an entrenched first basemen — including the Dodgers (Max Muncy/Cody Bellinger), the Cardinals (Paul Goldschmidt), the Giants (Brandon Belt), and the Mets (Pete Alonso) — should the new CBA include a universal DH. But not every team has the payroll flexibility to add Freeman, of course, and few see either first base (the least demanding defensive position) or DH (a non-defensive role) as positions worthy of major payroll commitments, both of which Anthopoulos is likely relying on as he attempts to wait out his star.
Three teams with money to spend (the Dodgers, Yankees, and Blue Jays) were reported to have kicked the tires on Freeman ahead of the lockout, but Tim notes reasons to remain suspect with regard to each: in his seven years at the helm in LA, Andrew Friedman has never given out a deal longer than four years to another team’s free agent; the Yankees have more urgent needs at shortstop and in the rotation; and the Blue Jays would have to either transition Vladimir Guerrero Jr. back to third base (where his defense would detract from his bat’s enormous value) or ask their young star to give up his glove entirely after an MVP-caliber season at first. Still, each of these clubs have the financial flexibility to pry Freeman from the Braves, and there’s no telling how any team will react to the free-agent feeding frenzy likely to follow the end of the lockout.
Fresh off a World Series run few expected, the Braves and their deep-pocketed owner clearly could afford to keep Freeman on the books (the Braves are owned by the Denver-based corporation Liberty Media, whose chairman, John Malone, has an estimated net worth of $8 billion, per MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald). Because Liberty Media is a publicly traded company, the Braves’ profit-and-loss numbers are a matter of public record. The company’s 2021 third quarter earnings report (which runs from July 1 to September 30, roughly the second half of the regular season) records $222MM in Braves-related revenue and an operating profit of $35MM while running a full-season payroll of just shy of $145MM (per Fangraphs’ RosterResource) — a profit figure that does not include the club’s massive playoff gate windfall, the flurry of championship merchandise sales, or the lucrative explosions in season ticket sales and sponsorship deals that commonly follow a title.
To be clear, though he was characteristically cagy about the details, Anthopoulos has stated publicly that the Braves will run a higher payroll in 2022, a feat they’re likely to accomplish even without a fresh Freeman deal. Per Cot’s Baseball Contracts (which includes salary estimates for the Braves’ nine arbitration-eligible big-leaguers), the Braves have already allocated just under $129MM in salary commitments in 2022 and are still in need of at least one starting-caliber outfielder; of the four outfielders the team rotated in the playoffs (Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, and Adam Duvall), only Duvall is presently under contract, and no one is sure what to expect from superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. (returning from a major knee injury) or Marcell Ozuna (from administrative leave) – or, indeed, whether the latter will even remain with the club. Further, while Acuña has played solidly in several years in center field and Duvall managed it through the playoffs, each is likely better suited for a corner. One of the prospect trio of Cristian Pache, Michael Harris, and Drew Waters is likely the long-term answer in center, but none has yet proven himself ready to take over.
How the Braves choose to address this need (as well as for a possible veteran innings-eater to complement the stable of young arms they’ll slot in behind Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Ian Anderson) remains to be seen, but both Soler (projected to land a three-year, $36MM deal) and Rosario (two years, $15MM) are live possibilities. Presuming roughly $15MM of 2022 salary to address these needs would put the club right around last year’s payroll figure, and a $30MM annual commitment to Freeman on top would push them significantly beyond any number with which ownership has seemed comfortable in the past.
These are heady times in Atlanta, of course — and Liberty Media’s balance sheet makes it clear it’s a bump they could profitably absorb — but there are baseball reasons to consider. Freeman will be entering his age-32 season in 2022, after all, and the Braves will want to do everything they can to avoid the sort of millstone deal given to other first basemen (e.g. Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Miguel Cabrera) in the last decade or so. Still, Freeman has been a model of consistency, posting an OPS+ of 132 or higher in every season since 2013, and recent years have shown no signs of regression; the first baseman followed an astonishing run to an NL MVP behind a .341/.462/.640 line in the small sample of 2020 by essentially replicating his career numbers (.295/.384/.509) in 2021 (.300/.393/.503) despite an uncharacteristically slow start.
The slugger’s batted-ball numbers also show no serious warning signs; though his line-drive percentage fell to 25.1% in 2021 (his lowest since 2012), his hard-hit rate (the percentage of batted balls with exit velocity of 95 mph or higher) of 46.2% matched his career number exactly. His 2021 strikeout (15.4%) and walk (12.2%) also fall on the right side of his career numbers (19.7% and 11.7%, respectively).
A six-year deal would take him through his age-37 season (by which point Father Time is likely to have made at least some progress), but the recent precedent in Atlanta is on Freeman’s side. Though he never played in more than 143 games after his age-31 season, Jones remained a productive Brave through age 40, even winning a batting title in his age-36 season and lodging his final two All-Star appearances at ages 39 and 40, all while playing a much more taxing defensive position.
How Anthopoulos will choose to play the Freeman situation on the other side of the lockout remains to be seen, but he’ll almost certainly have to rethink his aversion to a sixth year to keep his face of the franchise around. The pre-lockout market proved favorable to high-end players; Marcus Semien, who’s only a year younger than Freeman and has a much less extensive track record of high-end offensive production, pulled down a seven-year deal, for instance, and he isn’t even expected to be asked to cover the premium position of shortstop. Braves fans are currently riding high off their first championship since 1995, but losing the one player they kept around following their post-2014 teardown would surely let quite a bit of air out of the balloon. Landing either Atlanta-native Matt Olson (who’d cost the Braves a pretty penny in trade capital) or Anthony Rizzo (projected for a three-year, $45MM pact, and on whom the Braves have apparently kicked the tires) might soften the blow, but neither has the professional or personal stature Freeman has earned in his twelve years as a Brave.