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Starting Nine: Why length of deal should/shouldn’t be hang-up in Freddie Freeman negotiations

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Easing and raising concerns on reported sticking point in Freddie Freeman contract talks. Plus, free-agent pitching thoughts, Alex Anthopoulos strikes again in November, and some love for Blooper

2021 World Series Game 6: Atlanta Braves v. Houston Astros
Worried about durability as Freddie Freeman ages? He’s played in at least 147 games in eight of his 162-game seasons and every game of the shortened 2020 campaign.
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Heart rates elevate every time “Freeman” is trending on Twitter, and all the collective pacing has worn permanent marks in every Braves fan’s flooring.

The waiting, as Tom Petty so eloquently told us, is the hardest part.

Now, comes word that it’s the length of the contract is the current obstacle in a deal that would keep Freddie Freeman in Atlanta. The team has offered five years; the 2020 National League MVP wants six.

Here’s why that sixth (or even an option for a seventh) year should and why shouldn’t be a sticking point in guaranteeing Freeman remains a Brave as he completes a career that is currently on track to earn him a spot in Cooperstown.

Why It Shouldn’t Matter

1. When the Braves announced Ronald Acuña Jr.’s eight-year, $100 million deal in April 2019, and then Ozzie Albies’ seven-year, $35 million pact nine days later — both of which include option years to keep the duo in place through 2028 and 2027, respectively — it came with a term that’s been akin to dirty words where this franchise is concerned “financial flexibility.” But Freeman’s contract is the time to flex financially after those bargain-basement deals for two of the game’s brightest stars. If the franchise — and its Liberty Media overlords — aren’t going to pony up to keep a foundation superstar when you can afford to do so with each locked up into what would be the end of what Freeman is looking for, then what’s the point? As general manager Alex Anthopoulos said during he and manager Brian Snitker’s end-of-the-season availability, payroll is going to rise — which it also did in 2021, with the $131.4 million Opening Day payroll the highest in franchise history — and with currently $132.95 million on the books for 2022, the Braves still have $60 million in camp space to play with, a figure that could grow depending on what happens with Marcell Ozuna. In 2025, Atlanta has $37.5 million in current contacts and $32.75 the following year. The Braves put themselves in position for this very moment for this very player.

2. The chorus began with Dansby Swanson, who took the podium during the Braves’ World Series title celebration and said, “it might get me in trouble, but re-sign Freddie.” It was echoed minutes later by Travis d’Arnaud, who said “Dansby said it best. Re-sign Freddie,” and Ozzie Albies, who added “re-sign Freddie, no matter what.” The glow of the team’s first championship since 1995 isn’t going to subside any time soon — just head to any local shopping option, be it a sporting goods store, grocery, gas station, and you’re going to find something Braves title-related for purchase — but it’s hard to argue there would be a bigger misstep amid this lovefest than letting Freeman go if the team has the ability to keep him. He suffered through the 90-loss seasons and been lower than a 3.9 fWAR player in a full season once since 2013. You can argue that you’re not paying Freeman for what he’s done, but what he’s going to do, but he’s the one in the position of power here given what he helped the Braves pull off a mere weeks ago. As much as you want to keep Freeman in Atlanta, the backlash of his going anywhere else, even if it means paying him in potentially declining years, would be horrible PR.

3. Long-term deals 30-somethings have been problematic (which we’ll get into in a minute), but they haven’t all been bad, including in another first baseman that isn’t un-Freeman-like in the Reds’ Joey Votto. He inked a 10-year, $225 million deal in 2014 that takes him through his Age-40 season. The former MVP is coming off his highest wRC+ (140) since 2017 and at 37, the same age that Freeman would be in a sixth year of a contract. Per Baseball Reference, the most similar batter to Freeman through his age 21-31 seasons is Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, a comp that should give solace of Freeman remaining a productive hitter for years to come. While the end, as he played to 41, wasn’t spectacular, Murray hit above league average ever year in his Age-32-37 seasons. Freeman also figures to benefit from the designated hitter sticking in the NL, something that helped Murray extend his career into his late-30s. Votto and Murray are the exception, not the rule, but Freeman’s durability — he’s played in at least 147 games in eight of his 162-game seasons and every hear of the pandemic-shortened 2020 — lend thoughts to a similar level of strong production as he ages.

Why It Should Matter

4. Contracts for first basemen in their 30s are obviously dangerous territory, with Exhibit A being Albert Pujols and the 10-year, $240 million contract the Angels signed him to in 2012 and Exhibit B being Miguel Cabrera’s eight-year, $248 million deal with the Tigers in 2014. Pujols inked his at age 32 — the same age as Freeman will enter 2022 — and Cabrera was 31 at the time of his extension. The back ends of those deals were/have been disasters. Pujols failed to hit at league average in any of his last five seasons with the Angels, with a high of 90 in 2019 again in 2021 at age 41 in a year shared with both Los Angeles franchises. Meanwhile, Cabrera has had one season above 103 wRC+ and three under league average, including 2021 (92 wRC+) at age 38.

5. A potential sixth year of Freeman would take him through his Age-37 season, a point where it’s been difficult to produce an elite level of play. There have been 148 seasons played at 37 in which the player accumulated enough plate appearances (502) to qualify for the batting title, with 43 producing an OPS of .850 or higher. During these past six years — which we’ll label as Peak Freddie — he’s averaged 28 home runs, 34 doubles, a .305 average and .896 OPS. Even if we take the low OPS of that run, his .892 in 2018, here’s how difficult it is to believe that at 37 Freeman can still be that productive. Just 27 of those 148 players at 37 have had an OPS of what has become baseline Freeman, the last being Joey Votto (.938) and before that, David Ortiz in 2013 (.959).

6. No one wants to think about the future, until it become the present. Come 2027, the Braves figure to still be paying Acuña $17 million in one of his club option years and Albies has a $7 million option for that same year (bargain on bargain, as we previously discussed). It’s getting well ahead of ourselves, but that year is also the second of Riley’s free-agent years, and given what we saw from him in 2021, keeping the third baseman as part of this core won’t be cheap. Not to mention there’s Max Fried (a free agent in 2025) and Ian Anderson (free-agent in ‘27). What kind of position does it put the Braves in to keep the band together into the end of Freeman’s deal if he’s near the $30-million range? Remember, in 2005, Chipper Jones restructured his $120 million deal because he wanted the Braves to stay competitive around him and saved the team $15 million over three seasons. Now, one variable in this is that the team’s current television contract ends in 2027, and while we don’t know what TV is going to look like six years from now (think about how much has changed in the past six), but that along with the revenue coming from Truist Park and The Battery could make future payrolls a moot point, but what things look like near the end of Acuña and Albies’ sweetheart deals is something to consider.

Elsewhere around Braves Country ...

7. The Braves had reported interest in Justin Verlander, but he’s rejoining the Astros on a one-year, $25 million deal, with a player option for a second year. Atlanta was also said to be eyeing Noah Syndergaard before he went to the Angels for one year at $21 million, and Eduardo Rodriguez went to the Tigers on a five-year, $77 million pact. The point is, free-agent pitching is proving to be extremely expensive. While the Braves do have plenty of young arms in the likes of Huascar Ynoa, Kyle Wright, Tucker Davidson, and Kyle Muller to put along with rotation givens Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson, they also thought they had depth with starting pitching going into last season (just look at how the World Series played out with the starting staff). So how deep to they want to go if they want to supplement Fried-Morton-Anderson? We just saw two of the riskier arms on the market, with Verlander pitching six innings since 2019; Syndergaard has logged two major-league innings the past two seasons. So how high is the market going to be for likes of Marcus Stroman, who has a market value of $21 million per Spotrac and a projected four-year, $84 million deal coming his way, and is coming off a 33-start season and made 21 or more starts in five of the past six full seasons? Is this all due to the Dec. 1 Collective Bargaining Agreement deadline and teams jumping on arms in fear of a lockout and impending spring scramble for talent? The cost of pitching has gone way up and final figure on a Freeman deal could dictate how high Atlanta can go if they want to shop in the arms aisle.

8. Anthopoulos has been up to his November shopping, adding some catching depth with the addition of Manny Piña this week. While doubling the usage of the ñ in Braves circles, it’s par for the course for the GM, who in November 2018 signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann, followed with Will Smith and Travis d’Arnaud a year later, and in 2020 inked Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Piña will make $3.5 million in 2022 and $4.5 million in ‘23 and while he hit a career-high 13 home runs in 75 games with the Brewers last season, Piña’s true value comes in providing a level of defense that was sometimes missing with d’Arnaud the past two seasons. Also of note: he can “sing.” Piña ranked 11th among catchers with 0.9 dWAR to d’Arnaud’s 0.4 (30th) and the new backstop was sixth overall (0.5) in the shortened 2020 to d’Arnaud’s minus-0.5, which was dead last in the majors. Piña also threw out 11 runners in 2020, a 50 percent success rate to compared to 25 percent by d’Arnaud, who also allowed 18 steals without throwing out a single runner in the postseason. We may see times in 2022 when d’Arnaud get some opportunities in the DH spot on days when Piña is behind the plate.

9. He’s posted “nudes” during the championship parade, he hung with Joc Pederson at a Georgia football game (and danced with Hairy Dawg) and after starting the season with 8,600 followers is now sitting at 56,000 on Twitter. Blooper has become a social media star, and as my Battery Power teammate Grant McAuley found out, the Braves mascot is also a hero on the platform. Whoever’s behind that thicc, hairy costume, they’re not paying you enough.