The topics of conversation for Braves’ fans this off-season have basically been centered around three things: the World Series title they just won, the rehab of Ronald Acuña Jr and his torn ACL, and the free agency of Freddie Freeman. Two of those are all positive. The Braves absolutely did just win a World Series title and by all available evidence, Ronald Acuña Jr is crushing his ACL rehab and will soon be crushing major league pitching again.
The last one, not so much. Freddie Freeman is still a free agent, mostly due to the lockout that’s now almost 2 month old, and all reports are the Braves and Freeman were still far apart in negotiations right before the shutdown. Watching Braves’ fans cope with this reality the last couple of months has been fascinating. It started with anger towards the team for letting things get this far in the first place; Freeman absolutely never should’ve reached free agency. Then it moved to the painful realization that Freeman may have played his last game in an Atlanta uniform, to now even discussing who they could possibly get to replace him.
I have no idea if the Braves are going to re-sign Freeman. I spent the last year saying they would but I also spent the last year saying he’d never reach free agency, and well, you know how that turned out. The betting odds are still in their favor, though by this point, that probably has more to do with inertia than it does any kind of actual intel. And because we have no idea if they’ll re-sign him, really the only interesting part of this conversation is now centered around who would replace him if they didn’t.
The most logical name is Matt Olson, the first baseman for the Oakland A’s. Oakland is always on the lookout for their next massive roster overhaul and reports are, when the lockout is over, Olson is a guy they’re looking to move. Our own Scott Coleman wrote a great piece on Olson as a potential trade target that you should definitely check out. It all makes logical sense.
The problem with Olson, however, is he’d almost certainly cost multiple top prospects to acquire, the type of deal Alex Anthopolous has shown zero interest in completing during his time as Atlanta’s GM. Despite fans best efforts to come up with elaborate trade scenarios year after year, Anthopolous has shown zero willingness to part with top prospects with several opportunities to do so. So as much sense as Olson might make as a possible Freddie Freeman replacement, it’s tough to call a trade like that likely. The Braves signing a free agent always seems like the more probable move.
Which brings us to today’s target: Kyle Schwarber.
If you don’t know, Schwarber is a 29-year-old LF/DH/IB type who is coming off the best offensive season of his career, where he posted a 145 wRC+, a .374 OBP, and 32 home runs while splitting the season between Washington and Boston.
If the Braves really did lose Freeman to another team, there would be all sorts of stories written on how they lost a leader, and a veteran, and a constant pro. But more practically than all that, what they'd be losing is a left-handed power bat in the middle of their order. You can debate all day long about replacing his veteran presence, but one thing for certain that would need to be replaced is his left-handed production. This is where Schwarber comes in. For his career, Schwarber has pounded right-handed pitching, to the tune of a career 128 wRC+, and with Atlanta’s lineup being so right-hand dominant after Freeman, that pop from the left side would be a must. He's also not just a hacker up there. Schwarber’s 13% career walk rate is one the best in baseball during his career, and shows there's real plate discipline to go along with enormous power.
The only time Schwarber gets in trouble as a hitter is when he starts putting the ball on the ground too often. That’s what happened in the shortened 2020 season, where he ran far and away the highest ground-ball rate (50%) of his career, which easily led to the worst offensive season (89 wRC+) of his career. Credit to him though, he made the necessary adjustments for 2021, increased his average launch angle by almost 7 full degrees from the year before, reduced his ground-ball rate from 50% to 38%, and posted a career high 145 wRC+. The Steamer projection system isn’t ready to say 2021 is who Schwarber is at this point, but still projects him at a respectable 125 wRC+ for 2022, meaning you should be able to bat him comfortably in the middle of any order. The batted ball profile also doesn't show any red flags as all of his expected numbers are in line with what the results were. The guy is just a really good hitter.
Schwarber would also come with the benefit of being substantially cheaper than either Freeman or Olson. FanGrpahs has Schwarber signing a contract somewhere near 3 or 4 years and around the $45M to $60M range. That’s obviously a long way away from the $180M or $200M Freddie Freeman is likely to demand, and being a free agent, wouldn’t cost the Braves a single top prospect, as Olson would. In fact, because he was traded mid-season, Schwarber even avoided the qualifying offer that would’ve cost any team that signed him a draft pick. His cost would be however much money it takes to sign on the dotted line and that’s it. This, of course, would also mean the Braves would have extra money or extra prospects to spend on other parts of the roster. While Freeman or Olson would represent likely one of the final moves of the Braves off-season, a move for Schwarber at first base would allow them to potentially pivot to other needs on the team, with adequate resources still in hand.
The only downside to what I think is a very good under-the-radar Freddie Freeman replacement, is Schwarber has very little experience playing first base. He did play 75 innings there for Boston last year but that represents the only time he’s ever spent playing first-base in the majors. Now it is traditionally one of the easier positions to learn on the fly as hundreds of players have successfully made the switch to first base over the years, and with a full spring training to get use to it, I don’t think it would be that big a problem. But honesty does compel me to point out this is one area Freeman and Olson would have a decent sized advantage, they’re just much more experienced first-basemen.
I’m guessing signing Freddie Freeman is still plan A. And there’s a decent chance trading for Matt Olson is plan B. But if Atlanta finds both potentially moves too expensive, I do think there’s merit in looking at Schwarber. He wouldn’t break the bank, he wouldn’t raid the farm system, he’s a reliable middle-of-the-order left-handed bat, and he would allow you to potentially add to other parts of 2022 team. Probably not the move any fans are hoping for at the moment, but if you get down to your plan C or D, there's certainly worse options on the table.