On Tuesday, the Atlanta Braves signed Freddie Freeman to an 8-year, $135 million extension and came to terms with Jason Heyward on the details of his final two arbitration years (valued at $13.3 million). There is good and bad news here, with Freeman being locked in at a rate the Braves can afford for the rest of his prime.
The bad news is that Heyward’s extension only buys out his remaining arbitration years, with no free agent years included. This seems to be the final word that Heyward will not sign a longer extension and will reach free agency. This is unfortunate because Heyward is a wonderful baseball player and the Braves will not likely be the highest bidder for his services in free agency. The Braves have reportedly offered Heyward what they think he is worth and Heyward has declined due to the virtual certainty that in free agency another, wealthier team will value him more. As a result, Heyward will likely be a Brave for two more seasons and then he will likely join the Yankees or Red Sox or whichever super rich team particularly needs a right fielder that year. Such is the life of a Braves fan in 2014.
This makes Freeman the new “face of the Braves”, and he will be a very valuable player in the two-season window the Braves have to win a World Series before Heyward likely departs along with possibly Justin Upton and Kris Medlen. Freeman will be there to bridge the transition from the Heyward/Freeman/Upton/Medlen Braves to the Freeman/Simmons/Bethancourt/Sims Braves. Whether the team makes the transition smoothly will be heavily dependent upon the development of the Braves farm system that is currently light on talent, as well as whether Freeman ever becomes a legitimate superstar. One reason to be concerned with whether Freeman can consistently produce on the field the way a so-called “face of the franchise” would is found when Freeman’s 2012 season is compared to his 2013 season.
In 2012, Freeman was an above-average offensive player whose numbers were mostly stagnant relative to his solid rookie debut. From his rookie year to his sophomore year, Freeman slightly lowered his on-base percentage while slightly raising his slugging percentage to produce a two point improvement in OPS. Freeman did this in a very similar number of plate appearances and two points of OPS is mostly meaningless. He was basically the same hitter. From 2012 to 2013, though, Freeman made a huge leap offensively, raising his OPS a full 101 points and becoming easily the Braves best offensive player. Freeman didn’t quite reach the level of elite offensive first basemen occupied by Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt, but he wasn’t far off either. Freeman was a mere 4 points of on-base percentage from reaching the .300/.400/.500 slash line that is the gold standard of offensive production which players like Chipper Jones reached year in and year out. If 2013 Freddie Freeman is the player the Braves will be getting for the next 8 years, then Atlanta has a solid middle of the order hitter to build around, and the team can feel very secure in its investment.
As you might guess from the way I worded that, however, I don’t think the 2013 version of Freddie Freeman is necessarily the guy the Braves can expect to get year in and year out. A lot of Freeman’s 2013 peripheral numbers don’t really reflect a player who made a huge leap in the way that his raw OPS does. Here is a look at Freeman’s walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power in 2012 vs 2013.
2012 – 10.3% walk rate, 20.8% strikeout rate, .196 ISO
2013 – 10.5% walk rate, 19.2% strikeout rate, .181 ISO
From Freeman’s good 2012 to his breakout 2013, his walk rate was nearly identical, his strikeout rate declined at a good but not massive rate, and his isolated power actually declined. Basically, all of Freeman’s improvement came via batting average and specifically a massive uptick in batting average on balls in play. Freeman improved his batting average from .259 in 2012 to .319 in 2013. His batting average on balls in play leaped from .295 to .371 which should raise concerns about how sustainable Freeman’s improvement is. Freeman’s line drive rate did improve from 26% to 26.7% but this isn’t the type of massive improvement in good contact that suggests a .371 BABIP is sustainable. Yes, Freeman is one of the best line drive hitters in baseball, but he was also that in 2012 and his BABIP was merely good, not elite. For Freeman to sustain an elite level of offensive output, he has to walk at a higher rate, strikeout less, and most importantly improve his power.
The biggest knock against Freeman coming into the league was that, as a first baseman, his power was merely good not great, and that hasn’t really changed. Freeman did drive in 109 runs in 2013, but this is mostly a mirage created by a ridiculous .505 BABIP with runners in scoring position. In 2012, Freeman had a .226 BABIP with runners in scoring position. Driving in runners at the rate Freeman did in 2013 is a fluky product of small sample size bias and should not be counted upon to continue in the future.
None of this is to bash Freeman as a player necessarily or even to criticize the contract the Braves gave him. It was a contract that was fair to both sides and pays Freeman at a rate that is basically what he would have gotten in arbitration the first three years and then a fair market rate for the next five years. Freeman gives up a little bit of annual value in exchange for the Braves assuming the extra risk of locking him in for eight years. While 8 years and $135 million may seem like a massive commitment, and in pure dollar terms it is the largest contract in Braves history, the raw numbers are a bit misleading.
Baseball is experiencing massive inflation primarily driven by the huge influx of TV money into the market. The Braves are not one of the fortunate teams to have signed a new lucrative TV deal in the past few years, but they have benefited from more national TV money and a generally stronger economic climate in major league baseball. Teams are making more, teams are more valuable, and as a result, salaries are skyrocketing league wide. All of which is to say that while Freeman is receiving money that may appear to be superstar money, it really isn’t. Freeman isn’t a superstar (yet), but he isn’t really being paid like one relative to what the upper echelon players in baseball are making and will be making soon. When the Mike Trout extension finally hits, that will redefine what superstar money is in baseball and Freeman’s number will pale in comparison. Freeman is a very good player and in the new world of baseball that’s what he is being paid like.
Overall, Freeman’s contract is a fair one to both sides and reflects the new reality of baseball contracts. While I don’t expect Freeman to match last year’s offensive output in 2014, I do expect him to get better as his career progresses and ultimately be worth the money the Braves are paying him. In fact, as salaries continue to rise, I expect Freeman’s deal to be looked at as a bargain in retrospect. It’s a solid deal that gives the Braves a good young player to build around; just don’t necessarily expect any MVP seasons in the future from Freeman.