The Braves have extended a pair of veterans in the past few weeks, inking catcher Travis d’Arnaud to a second two-year, $16MM contract and extending right-hander Charlie Morton on a new one-year deal worth $20MM (plus a $20MM club option for the 2023 season). Atlanta fans, of course, are eagerly awaiting a more sizable investment in cornerstone slugger Freddie Freeman, the reigning National League MVP. While the two sides have talked, however, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets that a gap remains, making Freeman increasingly likely to reach the open market at the end of the season, although both parties still hope to ultimately come to an agreement.
That a “gap” exists between the two parties effectively goes without saying. (He’d be signed by now without one.) Still, most Braves fans have been eagerly awaiting a deal, particularly with a pair of recent extensions now on the books, so even the possibility of Freeman actually reaching the market is unsettling. Freeman reaching the free-agent market certainly doesn’t make his departure a foregone conclusion. Talks with other clubs would only increase his leverage in negotiations with the Braves, potentially helping his cause on an eventual new contract.
Freeman, who’ll turn 32 on Sunday, is playing out the final season of an eight-year, $135MM contract extension that, at the time, was an enormous deal relative to contracts signed by peers with similar service time. The Braves were effectively paying full market value for Freeman despite him being years from the open market, and yet it’s still turned out to be a major bargain for the five-time All-Star. Freeman got out to a “slow” start (by his standards, anyway), but he’s absolutely dominated since mid-June. Over the past three calendar months (admittedly, an arbitrary cutoff point), Freeman is hitting .341/.417/.554 with 16 home runs, 15 doubles and a triple in 348 plate appearances.
On the whole, Freeman is hitting .293/.388/.505 with 29 big flies this season. It’s a step down from last season’s ludicrous .341/.462/.640 batting line through all 60 games but is nevertheless exceptional production. That he’ll turn 32 is surely a concern for the Braves, but as has been pointed out here and many other places in the past, it was just two years ago that fellow All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt inked a five-year, $130MM contract extension with the Cardinals that kicked off in his own age-32 season.
That contract is surely a point of comparison for Freeman and his reps at Excel Sports Management. Given last season’s MVP nod and a recent track record that’s even more productive than the excellent run Goldschmidt had leading into his own extension, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Freeman’s camp is looking to top that mark.
From a payroll vantage point, there’s no real difficulty fitting Freeman onto the long-term books. The Braves signed both Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies to wildly team-friendly contracts, and they’ll see veterans Drew Smyly and Chris Martin come off the books in 2022, trimming $18MM in guarantees.
Much of those savings will be reallocated to arbitration raises for next year’s class, but it should also be pointed out that the Braves don’t have too many large raises to give out. Dansby Swanson will surely get a big bump from this year’s $6MM salary, but their only other particularly sizable raises will go to lefty Max Fried and third baseman Austin Riley. Fried is due a raise on this year’s $3.5MM salary, while Riley will be arbitration-eligible for the first time. Not including arbitration raises (but including option buyouts), the Braves currently have about $84MM committed to next year’s payroll, per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez.
Given their current payroll of about $145MM, a new deal for Freeman is more than manageable. Ostensibly, this very situation is where the early extensions inked by Acuna and Albies ought to pay dividends. Having both stars locked up long-term on below-market deals ought to allow the Braves to pay to keep a player like Freeman, who is nearing franchise icon status, for the bulk (or entirety) of his remaining career.
Of course, the Braves have other long-term prospects to consider. Swanson will be a free agent next winter, and Riley is looking increasingly like a player who could be a foundational piece in his own right. At some point, a hard decision or two will need to be made, but it’d be nothing short of stunning to see Freeman actually depart, even if he does reach the open market.