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Starting Nine: Expectations for pain-free Freddie Freeman

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On expectations for the All-Star first baseman, Kris Bryant and Ronald Acuña Jr.’s new neck tattoo 

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves
Freddie Freeman is projected at .293/.385/.541 with 33 homers, 135 wRC+ and a 4.2 fWAR, but does knowing that he’s been dealing with elbow pain since 2011 raise the expectations?
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the weekend of the Super Bowl, which will put us a mere 10 days before the Braves open camp at North Port for the first time when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 12. That means you’re running out of time to remember that the team plays its spring games at CoolToday Park, not Coolray Field, which the Gwinnett Stripers call home. You may get a couple mulligans among friends, but get it together, people.

Before we dive into this week’s Starting Nine, given that the Super Bowl is Sunday, and more than a few readers will be watching solely for the commercials, here’s a baseball ad from Rolling Rock that was “banned” for the sheer volume of men being hit in their (Chris/Jim/Kelly/Reed) Johnsons.

1. What are the expectations for a pain-free Freddie Freeman?

Freddie Freeman disclosed at Chop Fest that he is pain-free for the first time in nine years after undergoing surgery in October to have a bone spur removed from his elbow, saying “. First, it makes it that much more impressive that he’s rattled off a 34.8 fWAR since 2011, fourth among all first baseman in that span, and secondly, it should have everyone salivating over what kind of season a totally healthy Freeman can deliver. Freeman had some big moments since, including a 1.065 OPS last June and 1.000 in August with Josh Donaldson behind him in the batting order, but Peak Freddie was arguably in 2017, when he was at 200 wRC+ and slashed .348/.456/.745 in the first half before he was robbed of seven weeks with a fractured wrist and hit “just” 21 percent above league average after returning in early July. That hot start coincided with that year’s primary No. 4 hitter, Matt Kemp, posting a 1.077 OPS in April, the single biggest month of any cleanup hitter since Freeman moved into the third spot full time in 2014. This offense is clearly more potent than in ‘17, when the Braves were 19th in fWAR (15.9) and Freeman was the only player with more than 19 home runs that year. New addition Marcell Ozuna proved a major boost for Paul Goldschmidt last season in St. Louis after the former settled in at fourth in his August returned from a fractured hand and the latter ended up posting the fifth highest wOBA (.391) of any No. 3 hitter over the last month of the season. Freeman is projected at .293/.385/.541 with 33 homers, 135 wRC+ and a 4.2 fWAR, but if his admission of fighting through past pain is any indication, here’s taking the over.

2. Will Kris Bryant talks now heat up?

The Braves would be just fine going into the spring with Johan Camargo and Austin Riley battling it out at third base, but there’s a new wrinkle in the discussion with Kris Bryant losing his grievance against the Cubs. Teams now have clarity in their pursuit, knowing he won’t be a free agent until after the 2021 season, and trade talks — or at least the rumors of them — are likely to heat up. General manager Alex Anthopoulos’ comments at Chop Fest on spending prospect capital for a player with one or two years are a navigation tool, as Bryant certainly fits the bill as someone who would have a high bar to command such a package. Due $18.6 million this season, the Braves have the financial flexibility to take Bryant’s contract on, per Anthopoulos’ relaying his talks with CEO Terry McGuirk regarding payroll. The Camargo/Riley projections are favorable, and the Cubs and Rockies have reportedly discussed a blockbuster deal that would see Bryant go to Colorado in exchange for Nolan Arenado, but it would be a miscalculation for the Braves not to at least enter the mix for the former NL MVP.

3. Depth of other NL divisions has margin for error shrinking

The Diamondbacks threw their hat into the ring for the NL West team hoping to finish behind the Dodgers in 2020, building off the Madison Bumgarner signing by trading the Pirates for Starling Marte, and the Reds are going all in, their latest play coming in with the Castellanos contract. The point here being that into September of last season, the NL East had as many as four teams vying for postseason spots (before the Phillies imploded in September and the Mets’ push fizzled over the last two weeks) and is projected to have four teams between 89-83 wins and joins the Central as the only group without a team forecasted at 90 or more victories. Granted, the East was similarly tough last year and put two teams in last fall, including the eventual World Series champion Nationals as the first Wild Card, but on paper, there’s absolutely no margin for error if the Central and East are going to be beating up on each other, which may be exactly what Arizona is banking on as it hopes to take advantage of playing in what is, in total, the weakest NL division. The American League may have inked the top two free agents in this class in Gerrit Cole (Yankees) and Anthony Rendon (Angels), but of the top 50 in MLB Trade Rumors’ rankings, 19 of the top 31 signed with NL teams and that depth is going to play itself out this season.

4. Albies and the debate over the NL’s top second baseman

With the addition of Starling Marte, the Diamondbacks are now able to slide Ketel Marte, who played three different positions in 2019, to second base full time. Ozzie Albies, of course, lost out in the All-Star Finalists vote to Marte, missing a starting spot by just under 70,000 votes. With Javier Baez now entrenched at shortstop, that duo, along with Cardinals’ Gold Glove winner Kolten Wong are the premier players at second base in the NL, but who is the circuit’s best at the position? Offensively, Marte is forecasted by Steamer at 3.8 fWAR, 121 wRC+ and .360 wOBA to Albies’ 3.7 fWAR, 112 wRC+ and .348 wOBA, and Wong is at 2.6 fWAR, 101 wRC+ and .323 wOBA. But add in defense, where Albies is slated at the top in Defensive Runs Above Average at the position (6.4) to Wong’s 4.3 and Marte at 2.1, and it paints and overall picture that Albies is positioned in his third full season to become the most complete player at second base in the NL.

5. Should DH reportedly coming to NL have shaped pursuit of Donaldson?

Jim Bowden, the former general manager, and analyst for The Athletic and MLB Network Radio, tweeted that “there is growing belief amongst NL GMs that the DHL will be instituted for NL as early as 2021. FWIW.” From a timeline perspective it makes sense with the current collective bargaining agreement expiring after the 2021 season, and it’s felt like an eventuality that purists are going to rail against. It will mean more big bats sticking around longer and increasing payrolls. The change to the 26-man roster will only help facilitate it. But if it is the case, and NL GMs have this “growing belief,” should it have altered the aggressiveness in trying to bring back Donaldson? Locking a position player up through their age-38 season which the Twins could potentially do if they pick up the fifth option year on the Bringer of Rain — is a calculated risk in the AL, but if it was known that the position was coming to the NL, would Atlanta or another team have been willing to match that deal to keep the bat around? If Bowden is right, and the knowledge of the DH coming didn’t shape the Donaldson chase, it figures to loom large over free-agent pursuits next winter.

6. Ozuna and the 2021 free agent market

Ozuna is filling the Donaldson in more ways than backing up Freeman in the lineup. He’s also taking on the Gambling On Himself role, which Donaldson played to perfection on a one-year deal in claiming National League Comeback Player of the Year and turning it into a potential $100 million payday with the Twins. Ozuna was an above league average hitter for the Cardinals in 2019 (110 wRC+) and had a 2.6 fWAR that was ninth among all primary left fielders. As Anthopoulos said on MLB Network Radio, the Braves discussed a multi-year deal with Ozuna — and it was reported that the 29-year-old had similar discussions with other clubs, which included three- and four-year offers — but the two sides couldn’t make it work from a financial standpoint because Ozuna and his agent clearly feel he’s capable of being the player that raked to the tune of 143 wRC+ for the Marlins in ‘17 and not the one that had consecutive seasons of under 3.0 fWAR for St. Louis. It’s a calculated move, but will it end up being mistimed? Ozuna entered this offseason with the third highest fWAR of any free-agent outfielder — behind Brett Gardner’s 3.6 and Nicholas Castellanos at 2.8 — and was considered the second-best available player at the position behind Castellanos. But next year? Mookie Betts is on track to be a free agent, as is George Springer, Joc Pederson and Starling Marte, and there’s the potential for Castellanos to opt out of the four-year, $64 million deal he signed this week with the Reds. The market may not have been what Ozuna wanted, but even if he has a Donaldson-like rebound, it’s unlikely he passes Betts and/or Springer in the OF pecking order. This situation played into the Braves’ hands in filling a need without obligations beyond 2020, and Ozuna at least knows there’s interest in multi-year contracts heading into next winter, but will the number of suitors be limited by a better free-agent class? Ozuna is headed for an intriguing season and the months to follow it.

7. Braves’ place in NL’s free-agent spending spree

As discussed last week in this space, the Braves and the NL East have spent this offseason at an impressive clip, but MLB Trade Rumors’ breakdown of free agent spending by team shows just how much Anthopoulos and Co. went in for the 2020 season. In signing Will Smith, Marcell Ozuna, Cole Hamels, Travis d’Arnaud, Chris Martin, Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, Darren O’Day and Adeiny Hechavarria, Atlanta rolled up $116.25 million and added five top-50 players in the class. Only the Nationals ($316.75M), Reds ($164M) and Phillies ($132M) spent more, but none of them signed more than four top-50s. A year ago, the Braves spent just $31 million on free agents ahead of last season and in ‘18 totaled $2.5 million.

8. Pretty Fly For an Acuña Guy

If anyone who’d purchased a Ronald Acuña Jr. No. 13 jersey was fearful that he’d ever go back to No. 24, which he wore throughout his career before arriving in Atlanta, they can relax. The Pheñom has ink to assure that he’s not likely to ever switch numbers, with the All-Star outfielder unveiling a No. 13 tattoo on his neck (insert The Offspring lyric here). But no matter how much this becomes a talking point before and during spring training, it’s only ever going to be the second-most talked about tat concerning Acuña.

9. Company Drew Waters won’t be doing any commercials for

Touki Toussaint is both a Chick-fil-A connoisseur and a snob. As he detailed for me in a public service announcement last spring for FOX Sports South, he wants nothing to do with the butt-end waffle fries, his palate reserved for the purer waffles. He’s a perfect pitchman for the chicken purveyor — but Drew Waters is another story. The Braves’ No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, said at Chop Fest that he’s improved his healthy and strength with the following approach: “It’s ‘don’t go to Chick-fil-A and eat Chick-fil-A three times a day.’ I had a bad habit of that. ... I can definitely tell it’s helping me with strength, and I’m seeing my body transform a little bit, and now I’m starting to get a little bit of the man strength everybody is talking about.”