As the calendar has flipped to February, we are officially transitioning out of free agent season — though a few stragglers remain — and moving into extension season. With arbitration providing the nudge for teams and players to run valuations and negotiate over their differences, it’s only natural that these discussions often turn into conversations about long term deals that avoid the process entirely, and the spring training months provide the best opportunity for a team and a player to come to a mutual agreement on a mutli-year extension. While Clayton Kershaw kicked off the extension season a few weeks ago, Freddie Freeman’s new deal with the Braves is a reminder that extension season isn’t limited to just big market teams with overflowing revenues, and also a reminder of just how important a player’s age has become in long term valuations.
Freeman’s deal is for eight seasons, covering his remaining three arbitration eligible years and then five free agent years beyond that. If we assume that his arbitration prices would have gone something like $5 million/$8 million/$12 million, then he was in line for something like $25 million over the next three years, meaning the Braves bought five additional years of team control for $110 million or so, or essentially $22 million per year. It’s the largest contract extension ever given to a player with between three and four years of service time, though if you count the guaranteed dollars left on Ryan Braun’s deal when he signed his second extension, the Brewers were on the hook for $141 million over nine years going forward from the point of the agreement.
The Braun comparison is interesting, though, because Freeman’s track record right now doesn’t really stack up to Braun’s at the point that the Brewers committed to him for a decade. Here’s Freeman’s career line compared to Braun’s performances from 2007-2010:
Braun not only had an extra season’s worth of playing time, he had been demonstrably better than Freeman to that point, with a specifically large advantage in the power department. Even if you give Freeman a significant bump for defensive value relative to what UZR suggests he’s been worth, he’s still not particularly close to Braun, and remember, Braun’s defensive rating during that time was dragged down by his miserable rookie season at third base as well. Braun, at the point at which he sold five free agent years for $105 million, was pretty clearly a more accomplished player than Freeman is now.
Of course, baseball has seen a lot of inflation over the last few years, and Braun’s contract came three years ago, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Braun’s benchmark contract — for players with this level of service time — didn’t last that long. Prices have been going up for everyone, and $105 million in 2011 dollars is more than $110 million in 2014 dollars. This is just part of the cycle of baseball teams getting richer; baseball players get richer too.
But I think there’s something else at play here as well. Braun was 27 when he signed his deal, and the five free agent years he sold for $105 million cover his age-32 to age-36 seasons. Freeman is 24, and the five years he sold cover his age-27 to age-31 seasons. While Braun and Freeman’s total contract prices are similar, and they have somewhat similar amounts of service time at the point of the extension, they really weren’t selling the same thing. Braun sold the Brewers his decline phase, while Freeman is selling the Braves the years that are likely to be his most productive.
Historically, we’ve been conditioned to expect players to prove their value on the field over several years before they land these nine figure contracts, and Freeman stands out as something of an anomaly in the land of $100+ million extensions. He’s had one really good season, a year driven by a sky-high BABIP that almost certainly isn’t sustainable, and as a first baseman with good but not great power, he doesn’t fit the prototype of a superstar, nor has he played like one for an extended period of time. But this is where age comes into play so heavily, because the prime years of a good player are often more productive than the decline years of a superstar, and it’s likely a better investment to give an in-his-prime, good-not-great player more money than it is to reward a superstar for what he’s already accomplished.
We already saw the market come to this same conclusion with Masahiro Tanaka this off-season. Tanaka has no major league track record, but because he will be 25 next year while all the other free agent hurlers are pushing the wrong side of 30, he landed $175 million in guaranteed dollars while Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, and Ubaldo Jimenez probably won’t get that total put together. The market made it very clear that, when given a choice between youth and track record, it would choose youth.
And the Braves had to know that Freeman’s age would weigh strongly in his favor if they let him get to free agency. Even if he never developed into much more than what he is now, and if his BABIP regressed, and UZR actually is measuring his defensive value fairly well, he’s still likely to be a +3 to +4 win player by the time he gets to free agency. If he never learns how to hit left-handers and never adds much power, then he’s basically Shin-Soo Choo, and Shin-Soo Choo just got $130 million for ages 31 to 37. Barring a major injury, Choo seems something close to Freeman’s floor, only Freeman would be hitting the market in his prime rather than leaving his prime. With any reasonable amount of inflation and even stagnant performances from Freeman over the next few years, he was going to get paid as a free agent simply because of his youth.
In fact, I’d say that even with one less year of service time, the better contract comparison here is probably Elvis Andrus. Last winter, after his age-23 season, Andrus signed away his age-26 to age age-33 seasons for $120 million, but also got an opt-out that will let him hit free agency again after his age-29 or age-30 season if he feels he can land a bigger contract at the time. While Andrus was a year closer to free agency, the opt out has significant value, and Freeman’s skillset is generally rewarded more in agency. Andrus’ deal shows the premium that teams are willing to pay to lock up prime years rather than decline years, and that’s what the Braves have done with Freeman.
$135 million for a player three years from free agency is certainly a steep price to pay, and there’s unquestionable downside if Freeman goes the way of Nick Markakis, but in general, I think this is more evidence that teams have decided that they’d rather bet on the prime years of good players rather than the decline phase of great players. Because of his age, Freeman doesn’t have to become a great player to justify this contract; the value to the Braves here is that they’re not likely to be on the hook for any years in which Freeman is worthless. And to a team with the worst TV contract in baseball, that has a lot of value.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.