It would have made sense if Freddie Freeman wanted to leave the Atlanta Braves back in March 2016. An MVP contender in his prime, he stood alone on a Braves roster that had been liquidated for prospects in the year-and-a-half since a demoralizing 2014 collapse.
“No, that never crossed my mind,” Freeman told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution at the time. He didn’t exactly have the final say in the matter, but he certainly could have raised an objection and tried to force the team’s hand.
The front office had undergone a regime change, with John Hart and John Coppolella choosing to embark on the painful rebuild path after Freeman signed an extension. His position would have been understandable.
But Freeman doubled down on a clubhouse full of people he acknowledged he didn’t recognize, on an organization that — as he saw it — had taken a chance on him.
“When I came out of high school the Braves said I could hit. Everybody else wanted me to pitch,” he told the paper. “Every time I knocked on the door, they opened it and let me come through. Three years later they give me an eight-year deal. Why would I ever want to leave? They’ve given me everything I’ve ever hoped and dreamed of. Just because you trade some of my friends, it’s going to make me want to leave? I never once thought of leaving the Braves.”
That was then. Six years later, the Braves have turned that thought into a reality, whether Freeman wants to or not.
On Monday, the Braves traded for the slugging Oakland A’s first baseman Matt Olson. And on Tuesday, they signed him to an eight-year, $168 million deal that is shockingly similar to the eight-year, $135 million pact a younger Freeman signed back in 2014 — if you adjust that for inflation, it comes out to $161.8 million. There’s good reason for the similarity: a younger Freeman is pretty much what they’re getting. Olson and Freeman come by All-Star production in different ways, but they are both 6-foot-5, left-handed first basemen who cashed in after four full seasons.
The saying has long held that baseball is a business. But in punctuating a twist ending to Freeman’s Atlanta fairy tale, the Braves have provided the most blatant proof of that aphorism in recent memory.
Why 2022 Freddie Freeman didn’t equal 2014 Freddie Freeman
The 2016 Braves got the best 162-game campaign of Freeman’s career to date. They also stumbled to an 0-9 start … that turned into a 4-17 one … and then a 9-28 one, at which point manager Fredi Gonzalez was shown the door.
He was 26 years old, accelerating into his prime as the franchise strategically hit rock bottom. It was the third of four straight losing seasons. In terms of intentions, the Braves didn’t tank hard enough or early enough to expect the rebounds achieved by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros. In terms of results, though, they struck gold with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies.
The dynamic duo — not yet legally able to drink — arrived on the scene in 2018. They combined forces with Freeman and quickly signed below-market extensions with GM Alex Anthopoulos (installed after Coppolella was banned from baseball for violating rules around international amateurs). The franchise has not missed the playoffs since.
Freeman’s eight-year deal wound up as four seasons of wasted potential and four seasons of kinetic contention. The final spurt finally clinched a World Series ring for the franchise he stuck with.
It’s a situation unlikely to repeat itself. Wrack your brain all you want, and you probably won’t come up with a star who bridged a rebuild quite like Freeman. He was an established, nine-figure extension-worthy player when the Braves blew it up. And he was an established, nine-figure free-agent-to-be when their reincarnation reached the pinnacle.
Miguel Cabrera is on his last legs as the Detroit Tigers try to take flight after bottoming out. The Cincinnati Reds are giving up on their (scrambled, half-hearted) effort to make a Freeman out of Joey Votto as we speak.
Rebuilds themselves are largely falling out of fashion. The only word buzzier than “efficiency” in MLB front offices these days is “sustainability.” In conceptual terms, that means plotting out moves that keep your team within striking distance — and within the team owner’s prescribed budget brackets — every season. In more visceral terms, it means trading Mookie Betts to get David Price’s contract off the books. Or letting ALBERT PUJOLS walk away rather than try to navigate what would have come next.
Here’s the thing: When teams take money that would have been lumped into a single aging star and actually reinvest it across more seasons and/or more roster spots, it can achieve the desired effect.
Swapping Olson in for Freeman is eye-opening mostly for how directly it illustrates this concept.
This season, the ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs has Olson and Freeman as strikingly similar players. It pegs Olson for an .896 OPS, and Freeman for .898. Olson, a superior defender, comes out ahead with 4.8 projected Wins Above Replacement, while Freeman gets 4.0 WAR plus the knowledge that his defense may matter less now in a universal DH world.
If it came down purely to 2022, it absolutely does not make sense to give up four good to decent prospects to sub in Olson for Freeman. The picture changes quickly, though. By 2024, ZiPS projects Olson to remain a 4.1 WAR player — one of the game’s 30 best hitters — while Freeman’s power begins to droop and he slips to 2.8 WAR. He’ll be 34 then, while Olson will be just 30, the age when Freeman won MVP.
Now, projections can be wrong, and Olson’s lesser seasons are also worse than Freeman has ever been, so there are perhaps bigger risks there. Still, the Braves are positioning themselves with a risk they can more easily stomach, both because of aging and because of money.
Olson had two years of team control remaining, lowering his leverage and helping the Braves secure a deal that will pay him an average of $21 million per year, which both helps the actual budget and crucially lowers Atlanta’s number in relation to the collective bargaining tax thresholds that the owners use as a form of salary cap. Freeman will be seeking more annually on a deal that will mostly accept the fact that he may no longer be himself in the final year or two.
If you think Freeman’s loyalty to the Braves should count for something more, that his value goes beyond those numbers I just cited, I agree. However, if Anthopoulos — who just won a World Series and understands all too well how ownership’s financial whims can affect his job security — sees the Olson deal as a more prudent way to rack up wins and playoff appearances, I can’t find a great argument against the logic.
Where do your baseball loyalties lie?
Loyalty has about as much place in 2020s baseball as intentional walks or sacrifice bunts. You can lament them all you want, but tradition and sentiment don’t put runs on the board or dollars on the table.
It’s a reality we should all be acquainted with by now, but it’s a hard pill to swallow. Still, Braves fans particularly stung by the team’s decision on Freeman could consider looking at it from a new perspective.
In pursuit of his first true market-value deal, Freeman doesn’t owe the Braves anything. We don’t know exactly how the negotiations have gone, but it’s safe to assume they were not willing to offer him as much for his services as other teams. The adoration Freeman earned — by playing every day, by batting .300, by sharing goofy moments with Anthony Rizzo, by winning a title for Atlanta (Atlanta!) — doesn’t expire and isn’t barred from traveling across state lines.
Fans can throw their weight behind Freeman even in a Dodgers, Blue Jays or Red Sox jersey, and they certainly shouldn’t feel any worse about it than Anthopoulos felt moving on from a man whose home he recently offered to outfit with an ice cream machine.
Perhaps we should be imploring players to be less loyal, crafting elaborate displays of support to show Mike Trout we’d still love him if he weren’t all Freeman-like, if he had sought greener pastures and more than a handful of postseason at-bats.
Fresh off the lockout and the sport’s most heated labor clash in more than 25 years, it’s never been clearer that team owners aren’t going to voluntarily putting players’ best interests anywhere near the top of the priority list. They almost never earn the benefit of the doubt that Freeman nonetheless gave the Braves during their teardown.
Fans’ interests aren’t much higher on the totem pole, though teams have learned that wins of any provenance go a long way to distracting from the gleaming, familiar grin in the rearview mirror.
It shouldn’t be too much to ask for a billionaire to shepherd his most collectively cherished investment vehicle (especially when it’s basically a bulletproof profit rocket) toward some level of shared interest. Realistically, though, if you hope to see that change, you’ll probably have to actively, painfully force it. If that sounds a little dystopian, well, it is. Welcome to 2022, where Big Stuck Boats that don’t quite clog global trade routes count as utter delights.
Fans will probably remain glued to their team over their favorite players come hell or high water. There are all sorts of reasons, including a suboptimal streaming TV setup, but two of the biggest are the double-edged swords that empowered the Braves to sever ties with Freeman: tradition and sentiment. They keep fans tethered to the club their mom rooted for, the one their city swells with pride for, the one whose cap they’ve had since Little League. They don’t inspire uprisings on behalf of beloved, jilted players.
Will the Braves’ decision to replace Freeman be the one that whips up that change-making fire? No, it probably won’t. But it just might soften the blow when they decline Matt Olson’s option in 2030.