Braves: Current contract extension candidates

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Last April, the Braves made waves by extending outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and second baseman Ozzie Albies, locking up two vital pieces of the team’s core with consecutive team-friendly deals:

Both extensions came with a couple of option years apiece, meaning they could remain in a Braves uniform for the next decade, which effectively widens the team’s competitive window and allows Atlanta to remain a contending team for many years to come.

With those two deals going down as the 2019 season started, Braves’ fans perhaps didn’t quite realize just how crucial they were, but make no mistake… those moves alone make GM Alex Anthopoulos a legend in this franchise’s history. For him to act so quickly, not only says a lot about how much he thinks of Acuna and Albies, but it also says a lot about how great he is at running a baseball team (especially one under the stingy constraints of Liberty Media).

But who’s next? If Anthopoulos wants to keep this train rolling, which players should he be writing up extensions for now? There are probably several that we would love to see a Brave for the long term, but here are three more that Anthopoulos should perhaps start to consider:

I’ve also included each player’s current contract

Freddie Freeman, 1B

Current contract: 8 years, $135 million

Years/Money left: 2 years, $44 million (FA in 2022)

Age once a FA: 32

As the face of the franchise, Freeman has played in 1,346 games in his career, all for the Braves, slashing .293/.379/.504 with 227 home runs and 34.6 fWAR. After taking 2-3 years to get his feet wet in the big leagues (while still a productive player), the now-30-year-old has averaged a .300 AVG, 26 homers, and 91 RBI since 2013, providing the Braves with an extraordinary run of consistency. We could talk about the numbers Freeman has put up since his debut as a 20-year-old in 2010 all day, but we’re already fully aware of how talented and vital he is to this organization. 

The time is now for the Braves to start discussing an extension with their first baseman, not the beginning of next season…but now. Freeman isn’t a young up-and-comer looking for his first payday. As a player who has been in the majors for ten seasons and already made nearly $100 million in his career, the Braves won’t be able to whoo Freeman like they did Acuna and Albies. This arrangement will undoubtedly take time, as #5 will want to be sure that ending his career in Atlanta is what he truly desires (though he has made it clear that is the plan).

What it will take: Predictions have varied, but in late April last year, Talking Chop looked at this very topic and purposed a 3-year, $75 million extension for Freeman, coming this winter. I’m not so sure Anthopoulos will be able to get such a deal done in the next couple of months, but I do agree with the projected extension above. If you remember, at the tail end of Chipper Jones’ Hall of Fame career, the Braves handed out back-to-back three-year extensions, as Jones wrapped up his time in Atlanta. I see the Braves doing something similar with Freeman, as it allows them to avoid getting stuck in a long term deal if his decline years come a tad early. 

Projected extension: 3 years, $75 million

Mike Soroka, RHP

Current contract/salary: League min. ($555,000)

Years/Money left: 5 years (Arb eligible in 2021) / FA in 2025)

Age once a FA: 27

Wasn’t it so much fun to watch Soroka develop into a frontline starter this past season? As a 21-year-old for much of 2019, the Canadian righty almost put together an NL Rookie of the Year season and finished sixth in the Senior Circuit’s Cy Young vote, after leading the Braves’ rotation and going 13-4 with a stingy 2.68 ERA (the latter statistic ranking 5th-best in the majors). 

Other than the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, Soroka was arguably the best pitcher in the National League in 2019, as he somehow thrived in a crazy run environment and allowed the fewest home runs in all of baseball.

Sure, Soroka is still a ways away from becoming a free agent, and there’s perhaps no need to rush, but what if the Braves could secure him similar to how the team was able to lock up Acuna and Albies? Of course, there’s a lot more risk involved with Soroka: for one he’s a pitcher, and you don’t need me to explain the ins and outs of pitching injuries; second, Soroka does have a history of shoulder problems, an ailment that resulted in him being shut down in 2018 and one that popped up for a short time last February. But think about the positives for a minute. A starting pitcher as talented as Soroka is essentially price-less; just look at what seasoned players like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg received on the free-agent market this offseason. The Braves could potentially land a future $30-million per-year player for a fraction of the cost.

What it will take: Admittedly, there haven’t been many discussions yet — at least serious talks — about a Soroka extension. His Super 2 status tacking on another year of arbitration gives the Braves five more seasons (counting 2020) of affordable control, and he doesn’t enter arbitration until 2021. However, there is a deal that makes sense for both parties.

If you look at perhaps the most recent extension fitting Soroka’s current situation, there’s reason to believe the Braves could easily buy out all of Soroka’s arbitration years, plus two or three more of his free agency seasons. Looking back at the Rays’ Blake Snell — who signed an extension last year after winning the AL Cy Young in 2018 —  he inked a 5-year, $50 million deal, covering one year of free agency and so far it’s looking like a bargain for Tampa Bay. Another extension to look at — though a contract I don’t think will be very comparable — is Chris Archer’s extension back in 2014 (also with the Rays), which was a 6-year, $25.5 million pact that he signed with only 156 days of service time in the majors. I think the Braves will have to offer something closer to Snell’s deal above, but perhaps not quite as much, considering Soroka’s recent injury history and no Cy Young, of course. The Braves could do a 7-year deal, and Soroka would still be under 30 when he becomes a free agent and will be able to chase after a Cole or Strasburg-like contract as an experienced ace in his prime.

Projected extension: 7 years, $56 million 

 

Dansby Swanson, SS

Current contract: ARB 1 (proj. $3.3 million salary)

Years/Money left: 3 years (FA in 2023)

Age once a FA: 29

Imagine such a proposal a few years ago, when Swanson was coming off a 2017 campaign in which he hit just .232 and posted an unsightly 64 wRC+ in his first full season with the Braves (144 games). I don’t imagine either of us were even remotely considering the possibility that Swanson needed to be locked up long term. However, the Braves’ shortstop has made some impressive strides since then, combining to hit 31 home runs and bat .244 over the last two seasons, good for a still-below average 86 wRC+ and 3.4 fWAR overall. 

Although it’s not necessarily the numbers that illustrate Swanson’s improvements, it’s more so his approach at the plate and how he has handled certain pitches thrown his way. Like sliders, for example, a pitch he posted a .444 OPS against in 2017-18 combined, but improved to a much more manageable. 603 OPS this past season, while also raising his line-drive rate against the pitch by more than 10% (22.8 LD% / 33.3 LD%). Swanson’s numbers in 2019 deserve recognition too, though, as he improved his batting average from .238 to .251 since 2018, thanks to a 7% increase in his hard-hit rate (35.6% / 42.5%) and an almost 10% drop in his swings at pitches out of the zone (36.5% / 27.9%).

All of these stats and metrics point to a player who has worked harder than arguably anyone else on the team to improve his game. But does that mean Swanson is the shortstop of the future for the Braves? I’m not sure. There’s a reason I have Swanson listed last in this write-up, and that’s because I’m a little less excited about a possible extension for him than I am Freeman or Soroka. To me, Swanson and Mike Foltynewicz currently suffer from the same unfortunate drawback: inconsistency. The reason I choose Swanson over Folty is that there is less of a risk health-wise (in theory) and because he plays a position that should command far less in dollars when it comes to an extension, plus part of me still believes Swanson has a little upside left in him.

What it’s going to take: There’s no doubt that Swanson has become a better player relative to his debut with the Braves in 2016, but trying to project what kind of player he’ll be 5-6 years from now is challenging. There were signs last season — like his ability to finally hit the ball to the opposite field and patience to not swing at pitches in the dirt — that showed Swanson was on the brink of breaking out and becoming the player everyone thought he’d be when he was taken first in the 2015 draft (by the Diamondbacks). Even with all of that, extending Swanson would be a risky move by the Braves. 

Realistically, if Swanson does indeed receive his projected $3.3 million arbitration salary for the 2020 season, the Braves would have to give him an extension worth signing to give up two more years of arbitration money (which increases each season if his performance warrants), plus most likely a few years of free agency. I could see a deal that’s either front-loaded or back-loaded, depending on either parties’ preference.

Projected extension: 5 years, $30 million

 

A few others not quite ready

Mike Foltynewicz, RHP

As a Super 2, Folty still has one more season of arbitration after the 2020 season, meaning he’ll be a 30-year-old free agent in 2022. His 2018 season looked like the start of something beautiful, but after posting his first 200-strikeout campaign, he took a step back in 2019 (4.54 ERA / 4.97 FIP). I still don’t think Foltynewicz can be fully trusted and I’m not sure if he ever will be. An extension wouldn’t be horrible by the Braves, but I’m afraid we’re past such ideas now. Hopefully, he can turn it around this coming season and prove me wrong.

Max Fried, LHP

Another healthy season in 2020 and I’ll certainly have Fried on this list, as he led the Braves’ rotation in wins this past year (if you care about such things). Fried’s a bit of a late-bloomer, set to be 31 by the time he’s a free agent (2025). He’s also still making the league minimum in 2020 and ’21, so there’s no sense in jumping into extension talks just yet. However, if he posts another 3-WAR season and shows that his chronic blister issues are behind him, perhaps it’s a good idea to go ahead and lock the lefty up for good, as he and Soroka would make an excellent young top-half of the rotation for the distant future.

Cristian Pache, OF

Wait… isn’t this the cool thing to do now?… give an extension to a highly regarded prospect that has never even reached the majors? The White Sox are doing it (with Luis Robert / 6 years, $50 million), and several other teams have as well in recent years, though this wouldn’t be the Braves style, as they tend to be a little more conservative.

Locking up Pache on an Acuna-like deal would be both incredible and risky, as the Braves’ top prospect just made it to Triple-A Gwinnett this past season (and only for the final two months). Although, Pache made some impressive strides regarding his plate discipline in 2019, gaining some much-needed patience and even lowering his already respectable strikeout-rate by 6% once in Triple-A. Plus, the kid is already an above-average major league defender. Who knows… maybe next year?

 

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