As with anything else in the world at the moment, both the present and future impact of the COVID-19 virus on the world of baseball is hard for anyone to rationalize at the moment. The reason there continues to be more questions than answers is because with each passing day comes new information that not only creates new questions, but changes the existing ones. As a result, individuals and entities have come to the understanding that cooperation and compromise may be the best avenue to creating as much certainty about the present and future as possible.
Recently, both Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association were both prompt and proactive about setting the groundwork for how they can work together to make the most of the 2020 season considering these unprecedented times. While most of the agreements and conversations were focused on the present, there was one portion of the discussions that had plenty of impact on the future:
The most important thing for the players: In the doomsday scenario of no 2020 season, they will get full service time, meaning Mookie Betts, Trevor Bauer, Marcus Stroman, J.T. Realmuto and others will be free agents in November regardless of whether games are played.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 27, 2020
Per Jeff Passan of ESPN, no matter how the 2020 season progresses, and even if it is not played at all, all players will earn their normal service time progressions. Some of the players most impacted are the ones who are set to become free agents after the 2020 seasons, and the teams that are most impacted are those who acquired these players over the past year or so. However, at some level, this development obviously impacts every team and every player moving forward.
For the Braves specifically, not being able to reap the benefits of Marcell Ozuna or Cole Hamels in a normal and complete season would be a bit of a disappointment. However, with nearly all of the Braves’ young core still in tact, in their prime, and under control beyond the 2020 season, it could be argued they are better positioned for the near future than other franchises might be. This is especially true due to the long term agreements that were made with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies around this time last year. While the potential of losing a complete season to feature their young talent in its prime is frustrating, Atlanta’s future remains among the brightest in baseball.
However, one aspect of the team’s future that this news could impact is potential negotiations with some prominent pieces of their future. Names such as Mike Soroka, Dansby Swanson, Mike Foltynewicz, and Max Fried are all names, among others, who will see their earnings potential increase significantly over the next year or two, and who all have the ability to continue to improve as players. While there is no doubt each of these players are viewed as a part of the Braves future, determinations between the players and team will eventually need to be made regarding their eventual free agency.
Furthermore, these determinations are not simply based on the players and franchise coming to a compromise on how they view each individual’s production and potential it also comes down to several external questions that need to be answered. Some of these include:
How will the Braves’ budget be impacted for 2021 and beyond based on a year without or significantly limited ticket sale revenues?
How will the arbitration criteria change due to an unprecedented 2020 season?
How will all this impact and factor into CBA discussions between the players and owners in the near future, and how might that alter players’ salaries?
How comfortable might the Braves feel committing significant dollars over the foreseeable future to talents they have not been able to evaluate as much as they normally would?
The answers to these questions and many others are certainly better to know when talking about extensions. As expected, there are multiple perspectives from both the player’s and franchise’s sides as to why an extension may or may not make sense; however, the ability to determine which perspective is the most sensible is complicated as ever. Yet, these are still inevitable and very important decisions that must be made in the near future.
While the names mentioned above can all be viewed as being a priority for the Braves to keep in Atlanta for as long as possible, it seems pretty clear that the first conversations need to be had with the most significant name of them all: Freddie Freeman. Unlike the other names above, Freeman is already into his free agent years, as he is coming to the end of his own extension that he signed right before the start of the 2014 season. While the eight year, $135M commitment made to Freeman remains the largest single commitment the franchise has ever made to one player, it obviously was wise, as Freeman has evolved into a perennial Top 10 MVP finisher throughout the duration of the contract.
The remaining details of Freeman’s contract show that he is set to earn $22M both in 2020 and 2021, after which he will become a free agent for the first time at the age of 32. Though Freeman’s contract has certainly been a bargain due to his tremendous production, that does not eliminate future risk from the Braves consideration of how to keep Freeman in Atlanta beyond next year. There should be no debate that the Braves need to make every effort to keep Freeman in Atlanta for the remainder of his career; what may be a bit more difficult to determine is a comfortable length and dollar amount that rightfully compensates Freeman but does not become an albatross that negatively impacts future budgets.
Fortunately, there are a few factors that could be significant aids in reaching a conclusion on the details of Freeman’s future contract.
First, and foremost, is simply the fact that we are talking about Freddie Freeman. The face of the franchise in the present and recent past ( sure, this could be debated), Freeman is regarded as one of most professional and well-liked personalities in all of baseball. However, his production is what made him worthy of a significant investment and what makes him easily worth it for the future. Since his first full season in 2011, Freeman has easily been a Top 20, arguably Top 15 offensive player. Along with names such as Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt, Freeman has been a Top 3 first baseman for nearly a decade in the league (80% of games played at first).
Yet, what seems to set Freeman apart as one of the best bats in baseball over his career is his consistency. As seen in the first link above, Freeman has had the sixth most plate appearances since 2011, with at least 481 in each season. Of the 30 players since 2011 with at least 5000 plate appearances, Freeman is fifth with a .885 OPS. Over the past seven seasons, Freeman is one of only five players with 500 or more plate appearances to produce a .890 OPS or higher in five or more seasons. Furthermore, Freeman is one of only two players with 481 or more plate appearances to produce a .840 OPS or better in each of the past seven seasons. The other player is Mike Trout.
Freeman’s durability and elite level production has certainly put him in rare company as his career has progressed. Though he has never won an MVP, he has four Top 10 MVP finishes in his career. Freeman was having the best year of his career in 2017 before a broken wrist sidelined him for two months. Naturally, Freeman’s production took a step back as he worked his way back to full health. However, over time, Freeman returned to his previous form, as he set career highs with 38 home runs and 121 RBIs in 2019. Only six Braves had previously reached or surpassed those numbers, as Freeman was the first to do it since Andruw Jones surpassed them in 2005 and 2006.
While Freeman has certainly done more than enough to prove he has been and will likely continue to be a worthwhile investment, recent extensions to a few other well known first baseman may also aid in helping set the parameters for his next contract. Both Chris Davis and Eric Hosmer have secured contacts worth at least seven years and $140 million; however, they were 28 and 30 at the time they agreed to their contracts. The fact that Freeman will be 32 at the beginning of his contract will likely allow the Braves to stay under seven years in their negotiations.
A few better examples of what Freeman’s extension might look like could be Carlos Santana’s Contract in 2018 and Paul Goldschmidt’s extension signed right before the start of the 2019 season. The first season of both contracts were in the age 32 season for Santana (2018) and Goldschmidt (2020). The average annual value for Santana ($20M) and Goldschmidt ($26M) seem logical based on their production over the past decade. Since 2011, Goldschmidt, Santana, and Freeman are each in the Top Five of bWAR producers who have played at least 800 games at first base.
The total contact for Santana was 3 years and $60M, while Goldschmidt is set to earn $130M over the next five years. Though Freeman may be right in the middle of Santana and Goldschmidt in terms of career production based of bWAR, it is easy to see that he has been much closer to the latter than the former. Though Freeman’s prime was not at the level of Goldschmidt, advanced measures suggest the two sluggers have been quite close over the past decade. Through 5,703 career plate appearances for Freeman and 5.390 for Goldschmidt, their OPS/wRC+/wOBA slash lines are .883/137/.376 for Freeman and .916/141/.387 for Goldschmidt. In his age 30 and 31 seasons, Goldschmidt produced 5.3 and 5.2 fWAR, respectively. The 3-year Zips projection for Freeman seems to suggest he was expected to be worth 4.2 and 3.9 fWAR during his age 30 and 31 seasons if under normal circumstances, before leveling off to comparable production with Goldschmidt in his age 32 season.
As a result, it would seem that the 5 year/$130M commitment to Paul Goldschmidt would be a sensible and accurate model as a blueprint for Freeman’s extension in a risk free enviroment. However, even though it has only been a year since Goldschmidt agreed to his extension, there has been significant, even overwhelming, proof that committing this much money to a first baseman through their mid to late thirties is extremely risky.
The 3-Year Zips Projection for Paul Goldschmidt offers just a small glimpse as to why these specific extensions quickly become much more of a burden than a bargain. By his age 34 season, Goldschmidt is expected to only be worth 1.4 fWAR. In fact, since 1990, there is only 24 times in which a first baseman produced 3.0 bWAR or more at the age of 34 or older. The only players to have multiple 3.0 bWAR seasons at 34 or older are Andres Galaragga, Fred McGriff, Jeff Bagwell, Mark Grace, and Mark Mcgwire. Furthermore, only four of these seasons have occurred since 2010.
Yet, the best proof as to why a significant commitment to a first baseman past his prime could be considered bad baseball business are the other first baseman, other than Goldschmidt, who are playing out a contract that contains nine figures. Obviously, the contracts for Hosmer and Davis could be labeled as regrettable the day they were signed. However, the much more significant current examples include Votto, Cabrera, and Albert Pujols.
Though each of these three future Hall of Famers showed why they were worth the commitment in the first few years of their contracts (both Votto and Cabrera finished in the Top 10 of MVP Voting in their age 33 seasons), the fall from grace around age 34 and beyond is clear. In fact, when considering these three players along with recent retired players Ryan Howard and Joe Mauer at the age of 34 or older, the numbers paint an ominous picture. Statistically, each of these players had declined from superstars to barely servicable; financially, with each player making $23M-$29.3M annually, their contracts had changed from reasonable to regrettable.
As a result, it simply seems unwise for teams to make these type of commitments. In fact, Eno Sarris of the Athletic illustrated how trends show teams are becoming much more hesitant with their spending on first baseman who are past their prime. Furthermore, similar to the league becoming more financially conservative and hesitant to long-term extensions, another factor that could play a part in negotiations with Freeman is Alex Anthopoulos’s reluctance to make long-term commitments to veterans. The extensions to Acuna Jr. and Albies were obviously smart, they created cost certainty with two players whose futures are in front of them. However, Anthopoulos has made it clear in his time in Atlanta that he values a flexible budget. A significant commitment to a first baseman through is mid-thirties would certainly be a contrast to Anthopoulos’s moves to this point during his time in Atlanta.
Obviously, there are plenty of valid reasons and risks as to why a long term Freeman extension could be counterproductive for the Braves. However, those same reasons were in place when the Cardinals made their commitment to Goldschmidt. Though Sarris does point out that teams are placing less value on committing to first base talent over the long term, it seems that mindset is placed on talent that can be reasonably replaced. For truly elite talents like Freeman, despite what history suggests, teams typically will remain committed to their stars. Furthermore, when considering Freeman has made it clear that he wants to remain in Atlanta for the remainder of his career, choosing not to offer him an extension could certainly result in significant negative backlash.
Overall, there are plenty of reasonable risks and rewards for the Braves to weigh when putting together the numbers for a Freeman extension. Though it is highly likely Freeman will not be the player he has been during his current contract, it remains clear that Atlanta should remain significantly committed to him as one of the faces of the franchise for the foreseeable future. Though nostalgia and “paying for past production” are not ideal factors to consider during contract negotiations, discounting Freeman’s value on and off the field for the Braves is likely just as unwise. Especially with their current status as a contender for the foreseeable future, securing Freeman’s presence in the lineup and the locker room becomes even more prudent.
Therefore, with all things considered, the Braves should clearly make the Freeman extension a major priority over the next year. Though the other high dollar contacts for first baseman around baseball may be viewed as cautionary tales, they should not make the Braves question committing to Freeman. Similar to the Goldschmidt extension, the impact of the other contacts shows up in the logic for Atlanta to commit to Freeman over a four to five year stretch instead of seven or more years.
In the end, a plausible prediction for a Freeman extension could be $120M-$125M over five years. A $24M-$25M average annual value correlates well with the recent extensions given to comparable talents mentioned previously, as it falls just short of Goldschmidt but remains above others. The AAV should not make a major impact on the Braves budget, as by the time the extension starts in 2022, Freeman will have made north of $20M for four straight seasons. Though younger Braves will become more expensive, this predicted AAV for Freeman should allow future finances to remain flexible. Atlanta could also customize Freeman’s contract to make less impact on the team’s salary, such as making part of his earnings a salary bonus like the Cardinals did with Goldschmidt or setup a declining AAV amount for the duration of the contract similar to the how the Padres did with Hosmer. The Braves also could sign Freeman to a four year, $100M contract with a team option for a fifth year at a lower AAV.
Beyond factors the Braves can control in terms of the finances, the main focus will remain on what ultimately only Freeman can control, his production. As mentioned above, Freeman is expected to be worth around 3 fWAR for his age 32 season, with a likely chance for further decline after that. However, over the life of his next contract, perhaps 10 total fWAR, 100 home runs and an OPS north of .825 could be within reason for Freeman. Though more days off and other maintenance will need to be increased, Freeman’s approach at the plate should him remain a preferred and relevant lineup option into his mid thirties. Though his production may not be worth his price tag toward the end of his contract, he certainly gives the Braves their best chance to win a World Series over the next three to five years. For a team that has showed a preference for the future over the present in plenty of other recent decisions, an exception should be made for the player that has set the standard for baseball in Atlanta over the past decade.
Both the Braves and Freeman have shown a consistent commitment to each other throughout his career in Atlanta, and both sides have benefited tremendously from it. As a result, both Freeman and the Braves should be confident that their commitment to each other should continue to be beneficial for the rest of Freeman’s career, hopefully resulting in a championship along the way.
For clarification in terms of continuity, bWAR values were used for links referencing career queries while fWAR values were used for links referencing ZIPS projections.