The Atlanta Braves’ most-recent rebuild didn’t officially commence until the 2014-15 offseason, but the events that precipitated it took place several months earlier.
It was six years ago this week — Feb. 4, 2014, to be exact — that the Braves’ two young, homegrown stars took divergent paths. First baseman Freddie Freeman agreed to an eight-year, $135-million contract extension, ensuring he’d remain in Atlanta for the bulk of his career.
Outfielder Jason Heyward, an Atlanta area product who was drafted a round ahead of Freeman in 2007, agreed on just a two-year, $13.3-million extension. That deal bought out Heyward’s final two years of arbitration, but did not at all push back his free agency timeline as far as Braves officials might have hoped.
It’s easy to look back now and say that the Braves obviously made the right decision. Freeman is not only a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate, but he’s been arguably the best player on an Atlanta team that has emerged from its rebuild to win back-to-back National League East titles.
Heyward, meanwhile, eventually got paid — signing an 8-year, $184-million deal with the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2016 season, in which he also won a World Series ring. But he’s continued his maddeningly inconsistent ways at the plate, and is considered one of the more overpaid players in baseball despite his elite defense in right field.
But the choice wasn’t so clear-cut at the time. It was a legitimate debate as to which of the two young stars the Braves should try hardest to keep.
(Of course, we all know the Braves could have kept both Freeman and Heyward had they really wanted to. It’s only money, after all, which is especially easy to say when it’s not your money. But Liberty Media gonna Liberty Media.)
At any rate, let’s take a look at where both Freeman and Heyward were as players heading into the 2014 season:
Freeman was 24 years old, having just completed the best of his three full seasons in the majors. He hit .319/.396/.501 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs in 2013, posting a 147 OPS+ and 5.7 WAR for a Braves team that won 96 games and the NL East. Freeman was an All-Star and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting.
Heyward was also 24 (he’s about a month older than Freeman) and was coming off a season in which he’d played in just 104 games, missing several weeks in April and May after an appendectomy and then more time in August and September after his jaw was broken by an errant pitch from the New York Mets’ Jon Niese. He’d been an above-average hitter when in the lineup, posting a .349 on-base percentage and a 114 OPS+, and been worth 3.5 WAR on the strength of his aforementioned outstanding defense.
Freeman was clearly the better hitter at that point in his career, and appeared to be on the ascent. But Heyward, thanks to his superior baserunning and otherworldy defense, had been the better overall player.
Freeman had posted 9.5 WAR through the 2013 season, Heyward nearly twice that at 17.4. Even if you take out Heyward’s additional full season — Heyward made the Braves team out of spring training in 2010 and put up 6.4 WAR, whereas Freeman was not called up until September — he’d still posted 11.0 WAR in the three seasons the two players had been full-time teammates.
So extending Freeman and not Heyward was at least a gamble, though Frank Wren — then the Braves’ general manager — made it sound like a no-brainer.
”Freddie has established himself as one of the best young talents in the game,” Wren told MLB.com. “We are excited to sign one of our own homegrown players to a contract that will keep him in a Braves uniform for the next eight seasons.”
Wren then implied that Heyward might not be such an obvious candidate for a long-term deal.
”I think in Jason’s case, [a two-year deal] is probably a good thing,” Wren said. “Last year was such a tough year for him physically, through no fault of his own, with the appendectomy and getting hit in the face. So it also made it tough for both sides in an arbitration situation. It made it hard to pin a number when comparing to players who played a lot more or a lot less.”
(Several months later, after Heyward had been traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s David O’Brien — now with The Athletic — that the Braves never even approached him about a long-term contract past the two years he had previously agreed upon.)
The Braves took a step back to 79 wins in 2014, playing particularly poorly down the stretch. It was that second-half slide that led directly to Wren’s firing and the installation of the Bobby Cox/John Hart/John Schuerholz braintrust (which later became Hart and John Coppolella and finally just Coppolella) and the decision to strip down and rebuild the entire organization.
But the Braves’ problems in 2014 were no fault of Heyward’s. To his credit, he not only stayed healthy, but went out and put together a pretty good season.
Heyward’s offensive numbers were modest — a .735 OPS and 109 OPS+ — but he stole 20 bases and won his first career Gold Glove. He posted 5.8 WAR, 2.2 of that just on defense.
Freeman played in all 162 games for the Braves that year, but took a slight step back at the plate. His home run total dropped from 23 to 18 (though he made up for it with 43 doubles), and his OPS+ fell from 147 to 139, his WAR from 5.7 to 3.2.
Freeman was still an All-Star, but he hadn’t quite taken the leap to become the superstar we take for granted today. However, he was (and remains) under contract through 2021 (and wouldn’t start making big money until 2017), so it was clear any rebuilding moves the Braves were bound to make during the offseason weren’t going to include their then-25-year-old first baseman.
Wren was fired on Sept. 22, 2014, during the final weeks of the regular season. Hart took over as interim GM at that point, and he and Coppolella set about planning how to conduct the rebuild.
Starting pitcher Ervin Santana was set to be a free agent after making $14.1 million in 2014, while second baseman Dan Uggla had been released in June despite still being owed $13.2 million for 2015. Extensions and/or arbitration raises were also about to kick in for closer Craig Kimbrel, starting pitcher Mike Minor and third baseman Chris Johnson.
Outfielder B.J. Upton had three years and nearly $50 million remaining on his contract, so he was not what you would have considered a tradeable asset (though we later learned that wasn’t true). Shortstop Andrelton Simmons had signed a $58-million extension through the 2020 season, but had another year before he started making “real” money.
So that left Heyward and fellow outfielder Justin Upton (B.J.’s younger brother) as the most likely candidates to be moved. Both were due to be free agents after the 2015 season, in which Upton was set to earn $14.7 million and Heyward $8.3 million.
On Nov. 17, 2014, less than three weeks after the World Series ended, Hart and Coppolella pulled the trigger on what would be the first of a series of trades in the next year-plus, sending Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden to St. Louis for starting pitcher Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins.
Miller was a well-regarded young pitcher at the time, a former first-round pick who had posted ERAs of 3.06 and 3.74 in his first two seasons with the Cardinals. Most importantly, he was still a year away from arbitration and making a near league-minimum salary ($535,000).
Jenkins, 22 at the time, was also a former first-round pick but was considered more of a wild card after turning down college football offers to turn pro in baseball. He’d put up a 3.89 ERA in 13 starts in Class High-A in 2014.
”It’s very difficult to trade Jason Heyward,” Hart said at the time. “But the deal was made to help us not only in the short term but the long term.”
Over the next several months, the Braves would also trade away both Uptons and Kimbrel (all to the San Diego Padres, though in two separate deals), Simmons (to the Los Angeles Angels), Johnson (to the Cleveland Indians) and catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis (to the Houston Astros). Current Atlanta pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb were among those acquired in those deals, and was the draft pick used to select third baseman Austin Riley (young rotation stalwart Mike Soroka was drafted with a compensation pick the Braves got when Santana left as a free agent).
Miller himself was traded a little more than a year later after posting an All-Star season for a Braves team that went 67-95 in 2015. That deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks turned out to be one of the all-time steals for Atlanta, which landed not only shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson (the No. 1 overall pick in the previous year’s draft), but Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte.
(Jenkins pitched for the Braves in the minors in 2015, but was called up to make 14 so-so appearances — eight of them starts — for Atlanta the following year. After the season, he was traded to the Texas Rangers in a deal that landed the Braves … wait for it … Luke Jackson.)
Heyward had a very good all-around year in St. Louis in 2015 — batting .293/.359/.439 and winning another Gold Glove — before cashing in the following offseason with the Cubs. He’s continued to shine defensively and has posted 7.1 WAR overall, but has been a below-average offensive player in all four seasons in Chicago.
Freeman, of course, has blossomed into one of the game’s best hitters over the last five seasons. He’s slashed .299/.390/.537 and totaled 24.7 WAR while winning a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger Award and three times finishing in the Top 10 in the MVP voting.
As both players enter their age-30 seasons, it’s quite obvious Atlanta made the right decision to tie its future to Freeman rather than Heyward. Nick Markakis, for all his faults, has been a net-positive player (7.4 WAR as a Brave) as Heyward’s de facto replacement the last five seasons, and Ronald Acuña has emerged in the last two years as one of the game’s brightest young talents.
It’s unclear where the Braves would be now had they extended Heyward and not Freeman in 2014 (and subsequently traded Freeman rather than Heyward). Atlanta still suffered through its rebuild even with Freeman in the lineup, losing 90 or more games in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Perhaps the Braves could have traded for, signed or developed a player just as productive as Freeman to handle first base. But we know they did come up with capable replacements for Heyward, and have come out on the other side of the rebuild with an excellent young core of major-league talent and a farm system that is still producing a number of potential future stars.
As much grief as Wren and the Braves’ front office of the post-Schuerholz era has rightly been given for any number of bad draft picks, questionable contract extensions and horrible trades, those in charge clearly made the right call when they chose one potential superstar over the other. If that wasn’t self-evident six years ago this month, it certainly is now.
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. No, that’s not his real name.
Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Cot’s Baseball Contracts (via Baseball Prospectus); MLB.com; AJC.com; ESPN.com