Freddie Freeman Joins the Los Angeles Galacticos

© Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Freddie Freeman went out on top in 2021, riding in a parade through Atlanta as the unquestioned leader of a franchise he’d taken to World Series glory. He’s coming into 2022 on top, but in a different way. This time, he’s headed to Los Angeles as the newest member of a team he beat in the playoffs last year. But more importantly, he’s doing it with $162 million:

With this signing, the Dodgers are taking another crack at what they briefly built midway through last season: an offense with an All-Star at every position, the kind of team that doesn’t just have depth but also enviable breadth. Cody Bellinger? He’ll likely bat eighth. Will Smith? He’ll be the most overqualified six hole hitter in the game.

It feels like too much. It feels like overkill. But that’s because we’ve all become accustomed to a style of team-building focused on risk mitigation. Have the best team in baseball? Recent orthodoxy would tell you to consolidate your gains and focus on signing one of your stars to an extension, or fortify your minor league system to help develop the next crop of stars. It’s a popular method because it works; no less a team than the Dodgers showed the benefits of this strategy as they built a powerhouse throughout the middle of the last decade.

For the past several years, though, the Dodgers have been doing something different, supplementing their home-grown talent by adding stars in free agency and trade, creating essentially two cores: one of Dodgers who came up in the system, and another of talented superstars acquired from elsewhere.

Mookie Betts jump-started the process, and while he was acquired in trade, the reason he was available was that he and the Red Sox couldn’t come to an agreement on an extension. Before last season, they signed Trevor Bauer to a three-year deal that went sour more or less immediately when he was placed on administrative leave as part of an investigation into allegations of sexual assault. That didn’t stop them – they traded for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at the deadline. Now, they’re adding Freeman to that mix.

The Dodgers might not consistently spend this much, but for the past two years, they’ve stopped treating the Competitive Balance Tax as a binding ceiling, a decision that makes plenty of sense given their gargantuan local TV revenues. Their final payroll came in at $277 million last year. It’ll likely be in a similar range this year – $272 million as of today, though there are still players to be signed and a possible Bauer suspension to consider. That’s before counting non-payroll expenses, which will push their tax number higher.

While it might seem like too much on the surface, like spending money for the sake of spending it, there’s a clear method to their thinking. The Dodgers are trying to build a team for all seasons, and Freeman and Betts make a lot of sense as long-term pillars of that goal. The current Dodgers will run out one of the best lineups in baseball history, but that will likely only last a year. Justin Turner has this season and a team option for next year left on his contract, and at 37 he’s getting close to the end of the road. Max Muncy has two years left on his extension. Bellinger will be a free agent after 2023. Trea Turner could leave after this year.

Could the Dodgers re-sign every one of those players? They could, but I don’t think it’s likely. They have prospects coming up who will inevitably replace some of those names, and while they’ll surely make a push to keep Trea Turner on the team, it’s hardly a given that he’ll stay. If you take a longer perspective, Freeman is a nice luxury this year — and then a key cog if the team loses players elsewhere in the next two.

With Freeman in the fold, they’ll be insulated somewhat from any future departures. Oh, they probably would have been fine anyway – they’re quite good at generating the aforementioned home-grown talent, and already had Betts, Smith, and Chris Taylor on long-term deals. But you know what sounds better than Betts, Smith, and Taylor? Betts, Smith, Taylor, and Freeman.

If there’s one player who should feel left out in the cold by this move, it’s Gavin Lux. The former top prospect never really found a role in 2021; the Turner/Scherzer trade limited his opportunities at second base, and he played more games as an injury fill-in at shortstop than anywhere else. With Seager gone and a DH added, this was the year that at-bats were supposed to flow like wine. With Freeman and Muncy occupying first and DH, though, Lux’s role is shrinking. Is he a utility infielder? A platoon left fielder or second baseman who plays against righties? We’ll see what the team does with him, but he could be a potential casualty of building for tomorrow today.

Most likely, they’ll find a place to shoehorn Lux in and give him another chance to hit at the big league level. There will be spots opening up in LA’s lineup soon – AJ Pollock’s contract is up after next year, Justin Turner can’t play third base forever, and who knows what will happen to Bellinger going forward. There will be starts and at-bats available for Lux, with or without Freeman anchoring first base for the foreseeable future.

Freeman should fit in well in the Dodgers lineup, but that would probably be the case on any team he joined. Over the past five years, he’s been the best first baseman in the game, and while he’s 32 now, his most recent season hardly showed signs of a slowdown. Long-term deals always involve planning for player decline, but there’s a secret benefit to signing someone like Freeman: there’s plenty of room for him to decline and still be useful.

How does that look when phrased in the form of a median projection? Like an All-Star with a gentle decline:

ZiPS Projection – Freddie Freeman
2022 .293 .381 .530 566 103 166 31 2 33 101 76 6 143 3 4.7
2023 .288 .375 .515 542 95 156 32 2 29 93 71 6 137 2 4.0
2024 .283 .368 .491 515 86 146 28 2 25 83 64 5 129 2 3.3
2025 .280 .360 .475 486 78 136 25 2 22 75 57 5 123 2 2.6
2026 .274 .348 .449 457 68 125 22 2 18 65 48 4 113 1 1.7
2027 .266 .335 .416 425 59 113 18 2 14 55 40 3 101 0 0.8

Because I think this deal has a lot to do with building for the present and future at the same time, I also had Dan Szymborski run a custom projection: a percentile-based distribution of outcomes for Freeman’s 2025 season. That’s not something ZiPS was designed for, but after a little tinkering, Dan produced an answer to my strange question. It doesn’t take a baseball analyst to tell you that Freeman will be good this year, but looking at the later years of his contract for variance helps explain how he might fit on the team over time:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Freddie Freeman (2025)
90% .324 .416 .602 472 87 153 33 4 30 96 71 11 170 5.9
80% .305 .393 .556 478 84 146 30 3 28 89 65 8 152 4.6
70% .295 .380 .518 481 82 142 28 2 25 83 62 7 139 3.8
60% .287 .369 .498 484 81 139 26 2 24 79 59 5 131 3.1
50% .280 .360 .475 486 78 136 25 2 22 75 57 5 123 2.6
40% .273 .351 .457 488 76 133 23 2 21 71 55 4 116 2.1
30% .265 .342 .429 490 74 130 21 1 19 67 53 3 107 1.4
20% .258 .333 .415 492 73 127 21 1 18 65 51 2 100 1.1
10% .244 .315 .375 496 69 121 18 1 15 58 47 1 85 0.0

Will the 2025 Dodgers hate having a league-average first baseman? They’d probably be okay with it, and that’s if Freeman ages somewhat poorly. A 30th-percentile outcome would still produce an above-average batting line. Long-term deals are supposed to be risky – that’s one of the big knocks on them – but with a universal DH and a high talent-level starting point, I don’t think Freeman’s deal carries a particularly high degree of risk. The worst-case scenario is probably injury-related, but he’s been quite durable and plays a position that minimizes wear and tear. Not only that, but he and Muncy can alternate at first and DH as necessary. That’s not to say there’s no risk – there’s always risk – but I don’t view it as being particularly high.

From Freeman’s standpoint, the Dodgers must have seemed like a compelling destination. Sure, he likely preferred Atlanta – he said as much during last season’s playoff run. But he and the Braves didn’t come to an agreement, and the Dodgers’ pitch is straightforward. “Come play for the best team in baseball,” they surely said. “Come play where you grew up.” (Freeman is a native of Orange County.) “Six years? Not a problem. We’ll be good every one of those years.” In addition to being the best team to make an offer, the Dodgers apparently offered the most money, though state taxes make an exact comparison difficult.

It’s telling to me that I find the strategic implications of this signing to be its most compelling aspect. There’s no point in asking what the Dodgers see in Freeman – it’s obvious. Do you like middle-of-the-order lefties who rarely strike out, walk a ton, and hit for both power and average? Do you like it when they post a wRC+ higher than 130 for nine straight seasons? Do you like Statcast pages that are just a sea of red?

Even ignoring the measurables, Freeman is a satisfying player to watch. When people assert that line drive rate is skill and not just luck, Freeman is who they point to. He squares up everything – he has a career 27.5% line drive rate, comically higher than the league average. He hits everything hard, and never pops up. He doesn’t strike out very often – he doesn’t even swing and miss very often these days. He chases fewer pitches out of the zone than average despite being one of the most aggressive hitters in the game when opponents are foolish enough to venture into the strike zone.

The market for first basemen isn’t what it once was, and the market for players over 30 is a veritable ghost town compared to 20 years ago. It’s hard to imagine another first baseman signing a deal like this anytime soon now that Matt Olson is locked up long-term. You have to be a unicorn to get a six-year deal as a 32-year-old first baseman, and Freddie Freeman is a unicorn.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

Lux will get plenty of at bats. Dodgers move players all over the diamond regularly. Injuries will happen, and 162 games is a long season.

2 years ago
Reply to  Chris

I expect that there will be a rotation through the DH spot.