This is the latest installment of our Braves Extension Series, a sequence of posts detailing each player currently deserving of a long-term contract by the Braves. For an introduction to this topic, check out my brief overview published in January, here.
Earlier this month, I started this series by declaring what’s most likely NOT a shared view by most of Braves Country — that Mike Soroka is currently the Braves’ no. 1 extension candidate. Of course, I used Soroka’s incredible 2019 season and his near-miss at NL Rookie of the Year honors to support my case. But most of all, my interest in the Braves locking up Soroka has less to do with his break-out performance last season and more to do with the ever-increasing cost of an above-average starting pitcher.
Soroka’s extension is about the future and ensures long-lasting contention. However, our next extension candidate isn’t just some veteran with a household name that the Braves hope to hold onto for fan interest. No, this is a player that has been with the organization through the good and bad, evolving into the best player in the history of the franchise at his position. There are some players the Braves should extend, and then there are those that they must extend. This one’s a must.
Extension candidate no. 2…Freddie Freeman
- Free Agent:2022
- 2019 stats:.295 AVG, 38 HR, 121 RBI, 4 WAR
With two years and $44 million left on that monster contract he signed back before the 2014 season, Freeman has been an absolute boon for the Braves, worth every single penny and then some. In fact, since the 2013 season (his third in the majors), Freeman has tallied the 9th-most WAR (32.5)in all of baseball, pacing guys like Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rizzo, despite playing in fewer games than those three during that span. As the face of the Braves for several years now, Freeman has provided the team with consistency, selflessness, and above all, a humble version of leadership that’s illustrated by his work ethic on the field. And at a time when millionaire athletes have become some of the worst role models around, Freeman is one of the few good guys left — a true superstar, and the closest thing to an all-time Braves legend since the prime-days of Chipper.
However, despite ALL of that (and we haven’t even really gotten into his stats thus far), extending Freeman is still just another potential transaction for the Braves, no matter the intangibles and loyalty the first baseman brings to the table. In the end, reinvesting in Freeman will have to work for the Braves.
But that’s OK because here’s why it does…
Freeman, set to turn 31-years-old in September, has already been a top-5 major league first baseman throughout his entire career (since 2013, he’s second in overall WAR by MLB first baseman, behind only Paul Goldschmidt). Though simply being among the best is no longer the case anymore, as Freeman has passed Goldschmidt over the last two seasons, racking up 1.2 more WAR than the former Arizona first baseman (now with the Cardinals) and only behind Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy — both of which aren’t primary first baseman. Simply put, Freeman is currently the best in the business in terms of everyday first basemen, and he just so happens to be coming off his most productive season as a power-hitter with a career-high in home runs (38) and RBI (121) in 2019.
But as I mentioned above, Freeman’s accomplishments and everything he has brought to the table thus far won’t hold much weight in regards to what the Braves want going forward, when the team is looking to set itself up for years of contention. Freeman’s ten-year career has been incredible. There’s no doubt about that. But is he still the best option for the Braves three, four, or even five years from now?
I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t know the answer!
Just looking at the top-10 WAR leaderboard for all major league first baseman over the last two seasons tells you everything you need to know. Like I said above, Freeman ranks third on that list, but there are all kinds of talented first baseman in front and behind him:
2018-19 1B WAR Leaderboard
- Cody Bellinger— 11.4 WAR
- Max Muncy— 10.0 WAR
- Freddie Freeman —9.3 WAR
- Paul Goldschmidt— 8.1 WAR
- Matt Olsen— 7.3 WAR
- Anthony Rizzo— 6.9 WAR
- Matt Carpenter— 6.3 WAR
- Carlos Santana— 6.2 WAR
- Rhys Hoskins— 5.0 WAR
- Pete Alonso— 4.8 WAR
This, of course, is under the assumption that there are no in-house replacements for the Braves at first. I mean, Bryce Ball is a monster, but let’s be realistic here — Ball’s not taking Freeman’s job anytime soon.
So of those nine other top performers at first base over the last couple of seasons, who do you like the most to take Freeman’s spot with the Braves potentially? We can go ahead and exclude Matt Carpenter and Carlos Santana, given the former turns 35-years-old in November, and the latter just turned 34. No way the Braves opt for someone older than Freeman right now, not with their sights on sustainability.
We can also probably go ahead and scratch off Pete Alonso, Rhys Hoskins, and Matt Olsen. All three of those guys are controlled by their respective teams for the foreseeable future, with Alonso set to become a free agent in 2025 and Hoskins and Olsen hitting the market in 2024. Sure, a blockbuster trade is always a possibility, but to acquire those types of players from three teams also looking to contend (Mets, Phillies, Athletics), the Braves would have to move some top-tier young talent… which is the opposite thing teams do when building for the future.
Then there’s Muncy, who’s also a no-go for the Braves, given he just signed a three-year, $26 million extension with the Dodgers in February. Muncy’s success story alone makes him a prized possession in LA, and the cost would be ultra-steep for any team looking to acquire the 29-year-old.
So that leaves only Bellinger and Anthony Rizzo as even remotely possible players the Braves could pursue as a replacement for Freeman (remember, no prospects are knocking on the door to play first for the Braves). Bellinger just agreed to the largest salary ever for a player entering the first year of arbitration, earning $11.5 million for the 2020 season. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and the Dodgers will all but certainly extend him at some point. Rizzo, who just had his option picked by up the Cubs for 2020 (at $16.5 million), would probably be the Braves’ best bet out of the group. He’s practically the same age as Freeman and will enter the market at the same time, assuming Chicago picks up his option for the 2021 season (also $16.5 million). But, that wouldn’t be smart for the Braves, either. Rizzo will command market value in 2022, and extending Freeman now would save the Braves tens of millions of dollars… not to mention that Freeman has been a better player than Rizzo. Letting Freeman walk for Rizzo just wouldn’t make sense.
Which brings us to what the Braves must do: extend Freeman. Back when I looked at Braves’ extension candidates in January, I noted how Chipper took on a couple of three-year deals at the tail-end of his career in Atlanta. Doing something along those lines seems like an appropriate approach for Freeman as well, whether an agreement is reached sometime in 2020 or even next season. It’s going to cost the Braves, perhaps anywhere from $75-100 million overall; but with only around $40 million currently committed to the 2022 payroll — already featuring Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies locked up on the cheap — the team easily could and should extend Freeman without hindering other extension candidates.
It’s that simple, right?
Next week we’ll look at Extension Candidate no. 3…
What do you guys think? Let us know your list of players the Braves should extend, ordered from top priority to lowest priority.