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Max Fried set for salary arbitration for the final time

Max Fried is arbitration-eligible for the final time this winter.

Division Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves - Game Two Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

We took a look at A.J. Minter’ arbitration case yesterday. Today, we wrap up this brief series with a look at Max Fried. On Friday, clubs and their remaining arbitration-eligible players will exchange the salary figures that they will use as the touchstone for their cases later in the year. For “trial-and-file” teams, which definitely includes the Braves and covers most of MLB at this point, this is a hard cutoff after which teams won’t negotiate one-year deals to avoid arbitration, though most teams will happily continue to discuss multi-year extensions past this point. While the Braves began the offseason with 13 players that were eligible for arbitration, they’ve nowwhittled that list down to just Minter and Fried.

Fried was drafted as the seventh overall pick in 2012 by the San Diego Padres. The Braves acquired him in December 2014 in the Justin Upton deal. He made his major league debut in 2017 and worked in a swing capacity in his first two seasons, posting reasonable numbers in a small sample. Fried then moved into the rotation full-time in 2019 and managed a 3.0 fWAR season with a tantalizing 75 xFIP-. In 2020, he became the team’s top arm and led a shattered rotation following an Achilles injury to Mike Soroka. Since then, Fried has been a steady and reliably great contributor for Atlanta’s rotation. He played a big part in the 2021 World Series, pitching the Braves to a series-clinching win in Game 6, and then logged a career-best season in 2022 where he was worth 5.0 fWAR in a career-high 185 1/3 innings.

Three different injuries limited Fried to just 14 starts in 2023. A hamstring injury suffered on Opening Day shunted him onto the IL. He returned and made a few starts, but then suffered a strained forearm, which shelved him for three months. He returned once again on August 5 and picked up where he left off, before a blister issue caused him to end the regular season on the Injured List.

This won’t be Fried’s first foray into arbitration, but if he makes it there, it will be his last. After avoiding arbitration in his first year of eligibility as a Super Two, he beat the team after the 2021 season and came away with a $6.85 million salary, earning over $1 million more than the “standard” raise for a Super Two in his second year of eligibility.

While he lost the hearing to the Braves last year, he nonetheless came away with a $13.5 million salary, which was slightly higher than the $12.2 million that the Matt Swartz model shared via MLB Trade Rumors had projected, and completely blew the “standard” raise out of the water.

One way or the other, Fried is going to get another raise in 2024. The Swartz model/MLBTR project a $14.4 million salary; the “standard” raise would be something closer to $19 million, but it looks like the model is putting a heavy damper on that because of how much time Fried missed in 2023. It’ll be interesting to see what numbers both sides submit on Friday, especially in terms of whether Fried’s camp angles for another large salary bump given their past experience against the Braves in arbitration hearings.

No matter what happens with his 2024 salary, though, the biggest Fried storyline is his impending free agency at the end of the 2024 season. Recent history with Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson has shown that these situations don’t always work themselves out, at least not in the sense of the Braves retaining their homegrown, long-term, core talent. The feeling for a while now was that if he and the Braves were going to reach an agreement on a long-term extension, then it probably would have already happened. Fried’s injury-riddled 2023 makes things more complicated, because it likely lowers the price the Braves would be comfortable paying to retain him, but may not change Fried’s desire to bet on himself in 2024 and beyond. Further, Fried’s status as an MLBPA representative makes a team-friendly extension fairly unlikely, as players in those positions generally prefer to hit the market and push salaries higher if they don’t get a hefty payday from their own team.

If no deal is made, Fried will head to free agency ahead of his age-31 season. Given the skyrocketing prices for starters over the last couple of offseasons, and the premia that teams have paid for elite talent and production, his age probably doesn’t play that big of a factor in his eventual contract, especially if he puts together another good season in his walk year. Staying healthy will be key for him, though, as another injury-plagued campaign could seriously dampen the commitment teams are willing to make for his services.

Fried’s situation leaves the Braves with some rotation uncertainty for 2025 and beyond, even though they currently project to field MLB’s best rotation for 2024. Spencer Strider is locked up long-term and figures to be at the top of the rotation for years to come. The team acquired Chris Sale this offseason and then restructured to his contract to give him two more guaranteed years, with an option for a third, so he’s another part of the picture. Charlie Morton, though, is in the final year of his contract and turned 40 in November. The Braves have a number of internal options for rounding out their rotation, but don’t have anyone that looks like a top of the rotation option unless AJ Smith-Shawver or Hurston Waldrep take big steps forward in 2024. While Atlanta’s roster is so stacked that they’ll likely be fine either way (especially in this expanded playoffs regime where even mediocre teams have a lot to play for), but it’s hard to lose a pitcher of Fried’s caliber and end up better for it.

For his part, Braves President of Baseball Operations Alex Anthopoulos isn’t closing the door on keeping Fried, although he isn’t willing to go into much detail. He spoke about Fried’s situation over the weekend with Jim Bowden and Jim Duquette on MLB Network Radio.

“He’s great. That goes without saying,” Anthopoulos said of Fried. “It’s a great fit for us and yeah, we want to keep him, of course, but, there’s a lot more to it than that. The good news is, we have him for 2024. Beyond that, the hope is always if we sign any player, that the first anyone hears about it is to get a release from the club.”

“Other than the obvious, who doesn’t want to keep great frontline starters?,” Anthopoulos added. “We know we have him for this year and we’re trying to win in 2024 and that doesn’t mean we don’t have an eye on 2025. We do for sure, but it’s something that we will continue to stay on top of, and hopefully he’s here.”

Once a player gets this close to free agency, it is usually in their best interest to at least see what their value is on the open market, even if they ultimately stay with their original team. For an example, look no further than Aaron Nola, who hit the open market and negotiated with teams, potentially including the Braves, before opting to re-sign with Philadelphia for $172 million guaranteed over seven years. By going to the open market, Nola no doubt gained some extra money on his deal. The Braves will have some salary room next offseason, but the question remains as to how far they’d be willing to go to retain Fried. They’ve shown in the past that they won’t cross their own lines, so something strange would have to happen with Fried and/or the market for pitching for the stars to align. Still, all sorts of weird things happen in baseball all the time, so we’re really in a wait-and-see situation here.

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