You may have heard that the Braves and Freddie Freeman failed to come to an agreement on a contract extension or free agency deal during the entirety of 2021. Shockingly, I totally haven’t heard too many people talking about this, and it’s definitely one of the more underreported stories out there right now, for sure. Fortunately, you have the fine folks here at this particular Braves baseball blog to bring you up to speed on options that the Braves have should the star first baseman decide to play elsewhere in the future.
One of the top options that the Braves have as a potential replacement for Freddie Freeman is Anthony Rizzo. The 32-year-old former Yankee and longtime Cubs first baseman is also on the market and if Freeman does indeed leave then it’s pretty safe to assume that the Braves would go after Rizzo. The first baseman market is looking pretty bleak outside of the obvious top two, so it’s also safe to assume that these two are going to have plenty of suitors looking to pony up.
What would the Braves be getting should they bring in Rizzo at this point in his career? While I’d say that his prime has come and gone, he’d still be a perfectly fine first baseman and someone who could definitely help a team with aspirations of making some noise in the near future. The Braves are quite clearly one of those teams since they’ve got a World Series title to defend and they also currently have a pretty large hole at first base. The ZiPS projections quite clearly put this on display and also made it just as clear that adding a good-to-great first baseman would be the difference between the 2022 Braves simply being a playoff contender and having a real shot at defending their title.
Rizzo would quite clearly fit that bill. Again, he’s probably not going to put up numbers that are reminiscent of his run with the Cubs that turned him into a Wrigley Field legend, but I’d imagine that everybody reading this would be happy with a slash line of .257/.354/.463 with a .206 Isolated Power number, a .352 wOBA, 26 home runs, and 122 wRC+. According to what Steamer is projecting for Rizzo, that would help lead to a 2.5 WAR season for the former Bronx Bomber. Anybody would take that level of production from a lefty first baseman in any given year. While those numbers do seem a little bullish considering how his past two seasons have been (where his offensive numbers have taken a steep drop from their lofty heights of his 2014-2019 era), I also wouldn’t put it past Rizzo to get back to the happy medium that this particular projection expects.
Naturally, there are concerns here that Rizzo’s past two seasons could be the start of the usual rapid decline for first basemen. Part of the reason why both he and Freddie Freeman will still be searching for a team to sign with once the lockout ends is because I’d imagine that teams are pretty gun-shy about signing first basemen who are over 30 to expensive, long-term deals. All you have to do is look towards the massive contracts that Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera inked after turning 30. Father Time quickly grabbed hold onto them and despite both of them putting up otherworldly numbers in their prime, things changed very soon after both of them crossed over the over-30 Rubicon.
While Freddie Freeman has been doing a good job of warding off that particular demon, there’s still reason to believe that Anthony Rizzo could be in the throes of a major battle with aging. Again, the past two seasons for Rizzo have been concerning and that’s probably why even the Yankees didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity of bringing him back after trading for him in the 2021 season. With all this in mind, I’d say FanGraphs’ projection of something along the lines of a two-to-three year deal with an AAV of around $13 million-$16 million seems pretty feasible. Again, Rizzo figures to be a perfectly fine first baseman but also his drop-off over the past couple of seasons can’t be ignored.
So with that being said, should Anthony Rizzo still be a primary option for the Braves should Freddie Freeman go elsewhere? I’d still say yes but I’d also rather that the Braves went in another avenue if they need to replace Freddie Freeman. The Oakland A’s have made it pretty clear that Matt Olson is available and while the price is likely be steep (and a natural consequence of the Braves winning the World Series is that their prospect capital isn’t nearly as high as it used to be in recent years), you’re still getting a younger first baseman who’s still in his prime and is also projected by ZiPS to put up 5.5 WAR in 2022 — which is 3 full points ahead of the aforementioned Steamer projection for Anthony Rizzo.
So while there’s a clear and better option to go for, but also I’d imagine that Oakland is going to have just as many suitors for their first baseman as there are for Rizzo and Freddie Freeman on the free agency market — if not more. They’re likely going to hold out until someone pays the steep cost to bring in Olson so Rizzo could end up being the bronze medal option when it comes to teams looking to add first baseman for the 2022 season.
Still, bronze doesn’t mean bad. It just means that you wouldn’t get a gamechanger at first base like Olson via trade or steady and reliable (and in Atlanta’s case, very familiar) high-level production in the form of Freeman. Aging is a concern, but if Anthony Rizzo can find a way to stave it off for a season or two then he’d be pretty valuable piece to any team’s puzzle in the near future. He might end up being just what the Braves need as they attempt to make a serious World Series title defense in 2022. It would certainly look weird seeing a new face at first base, but hopefully Rizzo would at least be able to replace the sentimentality by making some big moments of his own with his level of production.