Braves: How critical is locking up Freddie Freeman this offseason?

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It’s another offseason for the Braves, which brings up yet another discussion on whether or not the team should go ahead and re-sign the best player to ever play the position in franchise history. It’s highly unusual during this time of massive contracts, but Freddie’s eight-year, $135 million extension from back in February of 2014 ended much too soon. We all know just how important he is to the Braves and the city of Atlanta, but is locking up Freddie a must this offseason?

We should probably start with the basics here. Next season Freddie will enter Year 8 of his eight-year pact from ’14, and at 31-years-old he’s set to earn roughly $22.3 million in 2021. Having made just over $100 million over the last 11 seasons playing for the Braves, the first baseman definitely isn’t hurting for cash. Still, business is business, and Freddie has performed at such a level in recent years that he deserves perhaps another $100-million contract (COVID-impacted prices be damned).

Not counting his incredible 2020 campaign, Freddie has three top-ten MVP finishes since 2016, including a .300 AVG and 30+ home runs. In terms of FanGraphs WAR, over the last five seasons, the Braves first baseman has been the sport’s eighth-best hitter and the absolute best at his position, having accrued 23.1 WAR (almost 3 WAR more than the next-best first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt, during that span).

So with him obviously at his peak in performance at the plate and his contract near its expiration date, what kind of extension are we talking about? What’s it going to take for the Braves to lock up Freddie and end this yearly debate already?

Back in May, instead of just throwing a bunch of different numbers around I simply looked at what type of replacements the Braves could potentially bring in if they weren’t interested in extending Freddie. Just that little exercise alone illustrated how critical him remaining a Brave really is. If you have realistic expectations regarding in-house candidates such as slugger Bryce Ball, and consider the contract situation of some of the game’s other top first baseman over the last two or three seasons, handing Freddie a $100-million extension honestly seems like a no-brainer. Once you comb through all ten of the top players at the position since 2018, you’re left with only potentially two first baseman worth pursuing (Cody Bellinger & Anthony Rizzo). And while Bellinger has actually been just as good as Freddie since 2018 (they’re both tied at 12.6 WAR), he just signed the largest first-year arbitration salary ever with the Dodgers. With Rizzo, you get about 60% the production, and the Braves would be in the same exact boat as he will also hit the market after next season.

At this poi\nt, it’s not whether the Braves should or should not lock up Freddie… it’s simply when?

 

No better time than NOW

Other than the top players from their class (ala JT Realmuto or Trevor Bauer), this upcoming pool of free agents will most likely see a rather drastic decline in blockbuster deals, which in turn, could mean a substantial adjustment in player salaries over the next few seasons. Freddie’s MVP-like 2020 may have made up for the COVID-induced correction that’s certainly coming, but it’s almost a given that his price has fallen now compared to just a year ago. No offense to the player (who deserves all he can get when it comes to a paycheck), but the Braves should pounce on this opportunity and re-sign Freddie long-term at perhaps a discount. And the team needs to do so as soon as possible.

Entering the 2021 campaign, Atlanta’s needs are pretty much the same as the last couple of seasons: more starting pitching and a nice power bat or two. Other than perhaps Mark Melancon and Shane Greene, the bullpen has been established, and with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies locked up for the foreseeable future, the core has already been set in place. This isn’t the time to let the most consistent player from the last decade walk, especially when there’s a chance to keep him at an affordable price.

At just over $92 million in team payroll committed so far for the ’21 season (ranking 18th in MLB), only Freddie and reliever Will Smith are on track to earn over $10 million for the Braves next season. If a 2019-like payroll ($145 million) is roughly where Atlanta wants to keep things, the team should have roughly $50 million to play with this coming winter — that’s enough to re-sign a few of the cheaper guys the team’s interested in bringing back, sign a frontline starting pitcher AND go ahead and commit to three or four more seasons of Freddie at around $25 million per year. So with so much to do to prepare for yet another season, the Braves shouldn’t waste any time when it comes to Freddie. Pay the man and keep him in a Braves uniform until he retires.

 

 

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