Posted February 04, 2014

Braves ink Freddie Freeman to franchise-record $135 million, eight-year deal

Atlanta Braves, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The Freeman extension is the richest contract in Braves history, far out-stripping the seven-year, $90 million the Braves gave Chipper Jones. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The Braves settled two of their three high-profile arbitration cases on Thursday, signing outfielder Jason Heyward to a two-year, $13.3 million deal that buys out his two remaining arbitration years and coming to terms with first baseman Freddie Freeman on an eight-year, $135 million extension. The Freeman extension, which was completely unexpected, is the richest contract in Braves history, far out-stripping the seven-year, $90 million the Braves gave Chipper Jones in 2000 just a few months in advance of his free agency, and stands as the 28th richest contract in major-league history.

This is a fascinating confluence of events for a variety of reasons. It was Heyward, the five-tool talent who seemed to arrive in the majors as a full-blown superstar at the age of 20, who was supposed to emerge as Atlanta’s franchise player. However, injuries and inconsistency have plagued the rightfielder. Freeman, a parallel prospect who is actually a month younger than Heyward, has shown a more encouraging pattern of growth and improvement in his first three full major-league seasons. Thus, while Heyward was the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award at age 20 as Freeman was just getting his feet wet in the majors as a September call-up that season, it was Freeman who was clearly the more valuable player in 2013, hitting .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs and 109 RBI to Heyward’s .254/.349/.427 with 14 homers and a mere 38 RBI in just 104 games.

Heyward’s injuries in 2013 were flukes (appendicitis and a fractured jaw from a hit-by-pitch), but he has still had just one healthy season in his first four and saw his production drop considerably from 2012 despite the fact that one doesn’t use one’s appendix or jaw to hit major-league pitching. Heyward’s deal will pay him $5.5 million in 2014 ($1 million of that coming via a signing bonus), the exact amount he had filed for in arbitration and just $300,000 more than the Braves’ $5.2 million offer, and $7.8 million in 2015.

Freeman, meanwhile, filed for $5.75 million and landed a $135 million deal that buys out five of his free-agent years. It seems pretty clear that the Braves overpaid here. However, just because the Braves paid too much doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t get their money’s worth.

Fangraphs’ Dollars statistic, which attempts to convert a player’s value in wins above replacement to a market price in free agency, valued Freeman’s 2013 season at $23.9 million. The average annual value of Freeman’s new contract is $16.875 million. Even if one were to take the average value of his last two seasons according to Dollars, Freeman comes in at $16.1 million, close enough given that he’s just about to enter his age-24 season and could continue to improve and gain consistency in his production as he approaches his natural peak in his late twenties.

What’s more, Freeman won’t turn 32 until the final month of his new contract, so the risk of decline or physical breakdown over the course of the contract is minimal, particularly given that Freeman plays arguably the least demanding position in the game (outside of designated hitter, of course). Eight years may seem like a long time, but in a winter in which 31-year-olds have been signed to seven- and ten-year contracts, eight years for a 24-year-old is a team-friendly contract.

So, Freeman may very well be worth $135 million over the next eight years, but the Braves still overpaid. How’s that? Because they had three years worth of leverage over Freeman, who reached arbitration for the first time this winter and wasn’t due to become a free agent until after the 2016 season, but wound up paying market price for him.

Consider this: Freeman was asking for $5.75 million in arbitration this year. If you deduct one season at that price from Freeman’s extension, the Braves are really paying him $18.5 million over the final seven years of his new deal. But Freeman wasn’t going to make $18.5 million next year, either. Let’s say he had another great season and got bumped up to $10 million for 2015, a big jump. In that scenario, the Braves just gave Freeman $19.875 million a year for the final six years of this deal, and if you give Freeman another generous assumption of $15 million in his final year of arbitration (by way of comparison, Prince Fielder made $6.5 million, $10.5 million, and $15.5 million in his three arbitration seasons from 2009 to 2011), the Braves just gave Freeman a five-year free-agent contract worth $22.85 million a year. To date, the only first basemen to sign contracts with average annual values as high or higher have been Ryan Howard ($25 million via the Phillies’ disastrous extension) and free agents Albert Pujols ($24 million) and Fielder ($23.78 million).

Freeman was due to become a free agent at the age of 27, a year younger than Fielder, but there’s no indication that Freeman is likely to put up Fielder-like numbers over the next three years. In Fielder’s first three seasons as the Brewers’ starting first baseman, he hit .278/.372/.536 while averaging 37 home runs and 101 RBI. Freeman, by comparison, has hit .287/.361/.468 and averaged 23 home runs and 93 RBI over his first three seasons, and there’s good reason to believe that his 2013 season was a spike that he’ll have trouble repeating.

Freeman actually hit for less power and drew unintentional walks less frequently in 2013 than he did in 2012. The big difference in the two seasons was his batting average on balls in play. In 2013, Freeman hit .371 on fair balls that didn’t leave the ballpark, a figure that’s almost guaranteed to drop in 2014. From 2001 to 2009, Ichiro Suzuki, the best hitter for batting average of this century, hit .357 on balls in play and surpassed a .371 BABIP just three times in nine years, while Miguel Cabrera has posted a BABIP that high or higher just once in 11 years. Freeman, though certainly capable of hitting for strong averages (he hit .303 in the minors despite graduating to the majors at the tender age of 20), is not going to hit .371 on balls in play very often in his career.

Freeman has power, but he doesn’t have great power (he has yet to surpass the 23 home runs he has hit in each of the last two seasons). He’ll take walks, but he’s not an elite on-base threat (he has thus far topped out at 60 unintentional walks, that coming in 2012). As a .285 hitter (his career average thus far), Freeman might put up a .285/.365/.485 line (an estimate which assumes he’ll show more power as he matures, as Freeman has yet to post a .200 isolated slugging in the majors). That’s a middle-of-the-order hitter and well above average production even at first base (2013 MLB average: .261/.337/.436), but that’s not a superstar, and not a franchise player, not from a player who is merely solid in the field at a position of minimal defensive value.

Now, it’s certainly possible that Freeman, who has been very good very young, blossoms into a superstar in his late twenties, but it’s equally possible that he has already had his best major-league season. When players are under team control, the uncertainty of ever reaching or sustaining that superstar level long enough to get a nine-figure payday gives their team leverage when negotiating an extension. It’s not clear that the Braves benefited from that leverage here, and, having failed to do so, would have been better off waiting to see what Freeman did in 2014, assuming a normalization of his average on balls in play, before striking a long-term deal with their first baseman.

With Freeman and Heyward signed, the Braves have one arbitration case remaining, that of first-time-eligible closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel’s filling amount is $9 million (against the Braves’ $6.55 million), the highest of any first- or second-time arbitration eligible player this winter. With the Braves having obliterated their supposed file-and-trial policy, another long-term deal could be in the offing. Kimbrel’s arbitration hearing is scheduled for Feb. 17. Freeman and Heyward were scheduled for Feb. 11 and 13, respectively.

25 comments
JoeKidd1
JoeKidd1

I thoroughly disagree that "his 2013 season was a spike that he’ll have trouble repeating."  Indeed, you're guessing based upon abstract statistical generalizations rather than understanding why Freeman's numbers spiked.  He batted .319 with a .371 BABIP not because of some lucky fluke, but because Freeman adjusted his approach.  He developed an excellent two-strike approach, started choking up on the bat at times, used the opposite field, focused on hitting line drives, and sought to maximize his efficiency and reliability in RBI opportunities.  Thus Freeman hit an incredible .443 BA/.541 OBP/.695 SLG in 170 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, and .370 BA/.448 OBP/.591 SLG, with 100 RBIs, in 299 plate appearances with runners on base.  Those numbers stemmed directly from his matured approach, and even if Freeman fails to hit .319 with a .371 BABIP in the years ahead, that approach could render him a perennial .300 hitter.  And in that case, given his good power and the fact that many hitters improve their walk rates with more experience and knowledge, Freeman could certainly be a candidate for .300 BA/.400 OBP/.500 SLG seasons in the years ahead.   And in that case, the Braves did not overpay.  


Indeed, you need to consider that rather than 2013 constituting some type of statistical anomaly, it may have been the sign of a young hitter (who just turned twenty-four last September) entering his prime. And most people who watch Freeman play would consider him terrific defensively; based on multiple defensive metrics, one could certainly deem him above-average.  


An above-average defensive first baseman who profiles as a threat for .300 BA/.400 OBP/.500 SLG/20 HR/100 RBI seasons in the years to come could certainly be considered an MVP candidate in today's era, and if Freeman had taken that profile and pedigree to the market in three years, he could have received an eight-year contract worth $180M, or an annual average of $22.5M.  Indeed, that figure is about the same as the annual average that you suggest Atlanta will be effectively paying Freeman over the deal's final five years.  


The difference is that now the Braves won't have Freeman's impending free agency hanging over their heads and can give themselves cost certainty before Jason Heyward and Justin Upton reach free agency after the 2015 season.  Conversely, had Atlanta waited to ink Freeman to a hefty multi-year contract, not only would the Braves have clouded their future decisions, but they would have then needed to give a long-term contract (possibly for eight years) to a twenty-seven-year old rather than to a twenty-four-year old.  After all, Freeman will have just turned thirty-two when this deal expires, so this very long-term contract figures to be one of the few very long-term contracts that won't be paying a player large salaries when he is past his prime.  Conversely, if the Braves had waited until Freeman had cleared his arbitration years, then in order to retain him, they might have needed to pay him huge salaries when he was in his mid-thirties and past his prime.  The problem with the contracts for Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard lie in how much they are being paid after their age-thirty-one seasons, whereas this contract ends immediately after Feeman's age-thirty-one season.  


Also consider that the market values that you're taking from Fangraphs represent current figures, yet the market is always inflating and baseball is increasingly awash in television money.  In seven years' time, an annual average salary of under $17M, or even under $23M, for a player such as Freddie Freeman could seem like a bargain.


So when you take all these contextual factors into account, rather than slicing-and-dicing numbers on Fangraphs with little regard for context and idiosyncrasy, one could easily argue that the Braves made a shrewd move and saved money in the long term.  There's always some risk with this type of contract, but again, if you understand the game and understand why Freeman's numbers improved in 2013, the risk is considerably less than you suggest. 

MrArlington
MrArlington

We'll have to wait and see if he stays as motivated knowing that he doesn't have a contract year coming up. He locked in his salary for 8 years and this most definitely has an impact on performance.

joe602
joe602

No great deal compared to the Diamondbacks first baseman who is a much better player than Freeman and was had for 5 years 32 million

DanDeeley
DanDeeley

Definite overpay. Comparing him to other overpaid players doesn't help your argument. Mike Trout is doing chest bumps with his agent right now.

clt0002
clt0002

I don't think it's an overpay. Contracts are going to boom even more in the next few years. This will probably seem like a great deal if Freeman continues his production. 

Jeff2
Jeff2

My biggest problems with the article: 

1) using Prince Fielder as a comparable contract. Sure, Milkwakee entered arbitration with Fielder and didn't sign him to an expensive contract, but his final year in Milwakee he made 16 million, and his next contact was a 9 year $215 million ($24/year). He will be making $24 million when he is 36. Compared to that example, this is a better long-term deal.


2) He estimates Freeman's slash line, and ends up with a line lower than last year's line and barely above his 3-year average. And somehow supposes that 2013 will probably be his best year.  Maybe, or maybe he gets better and continues to post better stats as he matures and becomes a better hitter. These estimates of future production are not superstar level, but last years' production #6 BA in MLB, #9 OBP in MLB, and #10 SLG in the NL and the fact that he is a great defensive 1B do indicated All-Star, if not superstar levels.


3) Great use of A SINGLE advanced statistic (isolated slugging), and ignoring WAR (#32 in MLB; #3 for all 1B), wRC+ weighted runs created (#10 MLB), and, probabky most importantls, weighted on-base average (#13 in MLB).


Based on last year's output, Freeman is in the conversation for top 25 players in baseball, and is one of the top 5 1Bs in the game right now. Maybe the Braves could have cut a cheaper deal, but this only makes him the seventh highest 1B in the game. And he will likely drop with Chris Davis coming up on FA. It will be interesting to see what other close contemporaries (Brandon Moss, Brandon Belt) will command. The Braves locked up a top 5 1B for the long-term, and a player who has improved his game and should be a cornerstone of the franchise. They may have slightly overpaid, but this isn't a ridiculous contract like Adam Laroche's $10 mil. or Mark Texiera's $24 mil or Ryan Howard's $20 mil/year.



eyusko
eyusko

How can you use RBIs, wins above replacement, iso, and a triple slash line for evaluation in the same article? RBIs is useless. 


This is not overpaying. They bought out his free agency years to take some of the risk away of having to offer him $200mil in 3 years when he hits free agency. They are paying him more now to pay less later and to lock him up for longer. They may not have been able to afford him 3 years from now. 


You seem to have some grasp of advanced statistics, so why not look at wOBA and WRC+?


Freeman's wOBA (.387) ranked 13th in the league last year, and 10th in WRC+ (150). At the age of 24!


This is a great deal for the Braves.

B24
B24

It is over paying when you put it in its context.  Aside from the arbitration issue where they could have saved a ton of money for a few more years, it is a knee jerk reaction.  As Corcoran pointed out, it was one year.  Yes he has shown a steady increase, but it was one solid year.  They needed to ride out another arbitration year or two to see if he was going to continue to play at that same level.  Particularly when they have so many other needs right now (Catcher, Second Baseman, B.J. Upton, no true no. 1 starter).  They could have rented a quality player for a year or two at one of those positions while they made the most of Freeman's discounted years.


To Sidney who is claiming Braves bashing:  They should be bashed (and this is coming from an Atlanta resident).  This team has done absolutely nothing to improve on a season where their regular season record was smoke and mirrors and they were ousted from the playoffs as if they were never even there.  Paying Freeman more money wont get you wins in the playoffs.  Filling voids will.  And thus far they have only let more voids show.  So paying Freeman what equates to nearly $17 million per year prematurely is a bone headed move when they will likely now be out of money to sign anyone to fill the voids.  You can keep dreaming about them unloading Uggla to free up salary but no one wants him.   If they spent more time worrying about the product they put on the field and not so much about scamming the residents of Cobb County for an "economic development" tool then maybe they wouldnt draw so much bashing.  But as been said by ESPN and SI this has been an embarrassing and disastrous offseason.  Their lack of moves guarantees years of first round playoff exits as of today.


To Lambert for weighting defense so heavily:  I don't argue that defense should be paid, but if that is your justification for prematurely paying Freeman that much money, then Simmons should be worth about $20 million a year as he is hands down the best defensive player in baseball.  And I am pretty sure you wouldnt want the Braves paying Simmons that much money. 



SidneyKimGalloway
SidneyKimGalloway

Typical Cliff Corcoran bashing the Braves. . . it really, really gets old seeing this sort of biased commenting from Corcoran.  Obviously he's never watched the Braves including Freeman play ball. Cliff, considering all the injuries the Braves had in 2013 and considering how poorly BJ Upton and Dan Uggla played, how do you think they won all those games?


WHO*IS*ESPN
WHO*IS*ESPN

Over pay for his steady production?  You mean like over paying for Jap pitchers who haven't thrown one pitch in MLB or over paying "past their prime guys" to try and play again with injuries? 

MikeLambert
MikeLambert

Another classic example of a sports writer looking at defensive metrics rather than actually watching a guy play. I think metrics are great and give you an idea of a player's value, but you can't watch Freeman play defense over any statistically valid sample and say he is, "merely solid in the field at a position of minimal defensive value." 

Ask anyone on the Braves infield how many errors he saves those guys.  Not to mention is one of, if not the best, at turning the 3-6-3 DP. 


One more thing, your argument that the Braves could've saved a ton had they let Freeman ride out his 3 remaining arbitration years is a dicey proposition when you consider what happened to the Brewers when they did just that with your example, Prince Fielder. I wonder if Detroit would've been so quick to trade Freeman...

Plainview
Plainview

I like the deal.  Maybe overpaid, but for all of his best years. 

uncleremus
uncleremus

@B24   agree with some of your points but to say that their reg season record last year was smoke and mirrors is just stupid. you can't win 96 games with smoke and mirrors. 

gegrad
gegrad

@WHO*IS*ESPN  Yep, Braves are paying for his best years. Sure, they could have nickel and dimed him at slowly escalating salaries until he was 27. Then what? He's looking for an 8 year deal at age 27. So now you're paying and eight year deal at likely much more than $135M, for a guy's 27-35 age years. I think we've seen in the new era that extending that far into a guy's 30s quickly becomes an overpay.


I like this deal because they can let him walk when he's 32 and slowing down and start young again. Would you rather have that, or be paying Cano or Pujols until they are 41? I thought so.

BryanCustard
BryanCustard

@Plainview  I have a feeling that in two years it won't look like an overypay, especially after considering the Braves just bought all of his prime years. If his numbers continue to rise, we could be looking at a .300 high 20s, low 30s bat in the middle of the lineup for ages 27-30. 


B24
B24

@uncleremus

It was very much smoke and mirrors. They played in what was arguably the easiest division in baseball last year.  Their offense was feast or famine (homeruns or strike out) which never works for the playoffs, and they lacked a true number 1 starter that they could throw out there when their backs were against the wall in the playoffs.  It is a team built to win 90-95 games a year and have a consistent first round exit.  That is smoke and mirrors - a pretend WS contender.  Hell most Braves fans knew they didnt stand a chance once the playoffs started.  Aside from their early winning streak at the start of the season, and the one in late July to early August they were a .500 team.  Without those two streaks they would have finished behind Washington or in a tie.

fallsdownstairs
fallsdownstairs

@B24 @uncleremusThey won 96 games in spite of BJ and Uggla.  They were 13-6 against the Nationals, 13-6 against the Marlins, 11-8 against the Phillies, and 10-9 against the Mets.  Those records against divisional opponents are why they were able to run away with it.  

The unfortunate first round draw of Kershaw is why they were ushered out of the playoffs so quickly.  He's a Cy Young pitcher going against our beat up battery.  That's no contest.

clt0002
clt0002

@B24 @uncleremus  What an ignorant thing to say. Their offense was on fire at times during the season and they ended up with a solid avg. Medlen has been the decided number 1 starter for the past two years. You obviously didn't pay attention to baseball last year. The Braves had the 5th best fielding percentage in the National League, in addition to being 4th in batting (even with Uggla and BJ Upton, who you figure can't do worse than last year). They also had the number 1 ERA in all of Baseball. They kept production up even after Hudson went down. They were also first in sortable pitching and had the least amount of blown saves in the East. Please, before you comment, do some research.