Freddie Might Become a Free Man

In one of the oddest twists of the season, the Atlanta Braves have seen their playoff odds skyrocket after losing one of the league’s best players, Ronald Acuña Jr., to a torn ACL that prematurely ended his 2021 season. Now up to 81.9% odds of making the postseason from a low of a 7% chance — the 2019 Nationals never dipped under 22% in our projections — the Braves seem much more likely to be successful than not. And regardless of whether the season ends on a positive note, all of Atlanta’s key contributors are under team control in 2022 with one exception. But that exception is quite notable: 2020 National League MVP Freddie Freeman.

The general assumption around baseball — one that I also hold — has been that Freeman will of course be back with the Braves in 2022. After 12 seasons in Atlanta, during which Freeman was quite purposefully kept as the face of the team even while the Braves were aggressively rebuilding several years ago, seeing him in another uniform would just seem odd, almost on par with seeing Derek Jeter in Dodger Blue or Cal Ripken Jr. in green and gold. But the fates don’t care about looking bizarre, and the fact remains is that we’re entering mid-September, and player and team have yet come to an agreement on a contract extension. Jon Heyman reported on Thursday that there was still a gap between Freeman and the Braves:

Even if you think that Freeman will still eventually sign, him hitting free agency doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it did a year ago, and once a player begins talking with other teams, all bets are off. An elite first baseman becoming available to the highest bidder has actually become relatively rare, and if the CBA negotiations don’t drag down the winter activity — they very well might — teams with cash and the opportunity to sign a top player at the cold corner could result in Freeman leaving Atlanta. By the ZiPS projections, as measured in the first year of the new deals, no top five first baseman has been a free agent in nearly a decade:

ZiPS Positional Rank for Prominent Free Agent First Basemen
Player First Year of New Contract ZiPS Positional Rank
Freddie Freeman 2022 2
Carlos Santana 2021 14
José Abreu 2020 17
Carlos Santana 2018 7
Eric Hosmer 2018 13
Logan Morrison 2018 17
Yonder Alonso 2018 21
Lucas Duda 2018 24
Steve Pearce 2017 17
Chris Davis 2016 6
Daniel Murphy 2016 16
Adam LaRoche 2015 21
Mike Napoli 2014 16
Mike Napoli 2013 8
Adam LaRoche 2013 25
Albert Pujols 2012 1
Prince Fielder 2012 5
Carlos Pena 2012 12
Paul Konerko 2011 11
Carlos Pena 2011 13
Derrek Lee 2011 15
Aubrey Huff 2011 17
Adam LaRoche 2010 7
Carlos Delgado 2010 10
Nick Johnson 2010 14
Mark Teixeira 2009 5

The last first baseman to hit free agency with a better projection than Freeman was Albert Pujols in 2012, back when we were all sweet summer children when estimating how his 30s would go. Since the Chris Davis signing — another one that didn’t go that well for the team — only Carlos Santana entering 2018 even projected in the top 10 at the position. Sorry, Eric Hosmer fans!

Now, none of this means that Freeman will enter the season with a contract north of $200 million, even if the labor environment turns out to be shockingly tranquil. Sabermetrics was, of course, a thing in 2012, but you still had fading remnants of a past when slugging first basemen were generally overvalued, and there were more people still hanging onto the curious belief that players in their early 30s were still in their likely primes. A lot has changed. Can you imagine the AL and NL home run leaders attracting next to no interest in free agency in 1996, as was the case with Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter after the 2016 season? Hosmer’s eight-year, $144 million deal is one of the very few lucrative ones a first baseman has gained in free agency since the Davis deal, and the results for San Diego aren’t exactly likely to encourage general managers and team presidents to empty their teams’ wallets.

But even if he doesn’t break $200 million, Freeman will be highly sought-after by a lot of teams. He’s a terrific player right now, and signing him to your team can add up to four or five wins, which is very hard to do at the position. Unless he went 0-for-the-rest-of-the-season or something, he’d still rank as the top first baseman in ZiPS going into 2022 if not for Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s explosion this year. ZiPS sees a few more All-Star seasons for Freeman and a good half-decade or so of remaining a key contributor.

ZiPS Projection – Freddie Freeman
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .289 .391 .520 546 98 158 35 2 29 107 86 7 137 2 4.5
2023 .287 .388 .521 526 93 151 35 2 28 103 82 5 136 2 4.2
2024 .280 .378 .492 504 84 141 31 2 24 92 75 5 126 2 3.3
2025 .277 .370 .477 480 76 133 29 2 21 83 67 4 121 1 2.7
2026 .272 .360 .455 453 68 123 25 2 18 73 59 4 112 1 2.0
2027 .266 .349 .428 425 60 113 22 1 15 64 50 3 103 0 1.2

With dollars-per-win stagnant in the $7-$8 million range and likely growing slower than a decade ago, ZiPS suggests an offer of six years, $138 million as a win-win for Freeman and Atlanta. The rest-of-career projections put Freeman at 425 home runs and just under 2,700 hits, giving him an interesting Cooperstown case. ZiPS sees a final JAWS number of 51.3, nestling him just below Mark McGwire and Eddie Murray and just above Hank Greenberg and George Sisler. The system sees Freeman as having a tough hill to climb for 500 homers, at 6%, mostly due to running out of calendar, but a nearly one-in-three chance at 3,000 hits.

In the end, I expect Freddie Freeman to end up back in Atlanta and retire a Braves legend. If he makes it to the Hall of Fame, there won’t be any controversy about which cap he has on his plaque. But things might not actually work out that way, and if I were a fan of the Braves, I’d be feeling quite a bit of unease until a deal is actually signed.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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JohnThacker
Member
Member
JohnThacker

Would Paul Goldschmidt be a close comp, although he didn’t hit free agency because he was traded in the last year of his contract, then the Cardinals extended him? I believe that Freddie is almost exactly two years younger than Goldschmidt.

amartin
Member
amartin

I think it’s a good comparable, Freeman has played a couple more years the Goldy had so he has more overall WAR, but Goldschmidt averaged more WAR per season. I was comparing the two yesterday, and it’s crazy how similar their batting profile is (Goldschmidt is a better baserunner and defender though, which is what changes the difference in WAR per year)