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Braves Extension Candidates: Max Fried

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Though Max Fried has just one notable season under his belt, it contained plenty of upside that may be worth investing in.

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, we have examined the pros and cons of several potential extensions the Braves may want to explore in the near future. Ranging from the obvious (Freddie Freeman), to the “I sure hope so” (Mike Soroka), to the debatable (Dansby Swanson), to the “if it makes sense, though it may be a tad early” (Christian Pache and Austin Riley), there is no shortage of interesting cases that Alex Anthopoulos and company will could explore in the coming months and years. Another significant case to explore emerges in the form of Max Fried.

As can be seen, there certainly are more position player candidates than pitchers. One big reason is that the Braves have certainly had more recent success in the progression of their offensive prospects than their pitching prospects. Another is that both Mike Soroka and Max Fried are several years away from free agency. In the case of both of the Braves young hurlers, they have one notable season in their careers, along with interruptions in their careers due to injuries. However, while the Braves can certainly take their time in pondering a long term commitment to either Soroka or Fried, an eventual agreement could come at a signficantly higher cost the longer Atlanta waits.

Obviously, the main reason as to why Soroka or Fried are candidates to begin with is the tremendous ceilings both young starters have shown. While Soroka has impressed with his consistency and control, Fried has opened eyes with his dominance and arsenal. With plenty of gas to blow pitches by hitters while also possessing one of the most mobile curves in baseball that he can throw for a strike in any count, Fried has established the expectations that he can be a top of the rotation option for Atlanta for into the forseeable future.

While on the surface Fried’s stats (17-6. 4.02 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 3.76 FIP) may not jump off the page as the production of a future ace, a deeper looks shows that plenty of potential certainly exists. For instance, in 2019, Fried was one of 16 pitchers who produced 170 or more strikeouts, a 3.50 or better SO/BB ratio and a FIP of 3.75 or lower. Each of the other 15 members of that list could make a case of being considered among the top 25 to 30 starting pitchers in all of baseball. Considering Fried had a 3.32 xFIP and 3.72 FIP compared to a 4.02 ERA, it seems Fried possesses the ability to make a similar case of his own in time.

Two big reasons for Max Fried’s success was his effective use of his curve ball and his ability to keep the ball on the ground. Fried throws his curve ball more frequently and with more spin than just about anyone in the game. And with results such as a .192 xWOBA and 37.9 Whiff% when he throws his hammer, he has good reason to feature it as much as possible. Beyond a potentially dominant curve ball, Fried also has displayed an elite ability to keep the ball on the ground. In fact, Fried’s arsenal and ability to induce grounders put him in pretty elite company in 2019. He was one of only five pitchers to produce a GB rate of 50% or more with a K/9 rate of 9 or higher (min. 160 IP). Fried’s consistent ability to produce grounders and strikeouts at above average to elite levels is highly valuable, as he can be effective versus any level of competition.

There were times of struggle for Fried in 2019. He was one of only six pitchers to allow 20 or more home runs and 170 or more hits in less than 170IP last season. However, he also had the third highest BABIP and HR/FB percentage of any pitcher who threw at least 160 innings in 2019. Both his expected results and ground ball tendencies suggest Fried may have been a bit unlucky last year in terms of his actual results. As good as Fried was 2019, the fact that underlying numbers suggest that positive regression is could occur going forward is quite encouraging.

Beyond his skill, another factor to consider when looking at a potential extension for Fried is his age. Despite having just over one year of service time, Fried will be 27 in January of 2021. With his expected free agency to arrive after the 2024 season, Fried will be 31 once he is eligible to sign with any team. Though there is a good chance Fried will continue to improve and will have less usage on his arm than most free agents entering their 30’s, he still will likely have less earnings potential than younger options (such as Soroka, who would also enter free agency after 2024 at the age of 27). Though he still could get a hefty pay day in time, Fried could be considered somewhat of a late bloomer and likely is within his prime for a pitcher with his repertoire. As a result, Fried could be inclined to make the most of his production in the present by guaranteeing as much money as possible for his future now.

In regards to his projected production and worth for the foresseable future, Zips is quite bullish on Fried’s potential:

A few things standout in regards to these projections. For one, ZIPS has high expectations that Fried can maintain his breakout performance in 2019 for years to come, even progressing closer to his FIP and expected results with positive regression in regards to home runs and BABIP. Secondly, the basic expectation is that Fried will be worth 1 WAR per 50IP through his prime, as ZIPS has him worth 9.3 WAR over the next three years despite averaging around just 150 IP per season. Over the past three seasons, only 25 pitchers in baseball have been worth 9 or more WAR. In other words, the expectations are that Fried could be among the most valuable pitchers in the game during his prime, especially if he can show he can handle workloads of 175IP or more per season.

His workload and durability could be a few points of interest to watch as his career progresses. Fried threw 100 or more pitches only three times in 2019, though he did go at least 6 innings in 14 of his 30 starts. Though Fried may never turn into the type of workhorse that can throw 200 or more innings every year, it may not be needed as the game becomes more specialized and reliant on bullpens. If Fried can maintain his effectiveness, he can certainly remain highly valuable throwing 150 to 175 innings per year. Plus, he also has some effective experience as a late game stopper out of the bullpen, even in the playoffs. That is an added bonus for a team such as the Braves with title aspirations.

Of course, the other side of the coin to consider in a possible extension for Fried comes from the perspective of the Braves. Simply put, the Braves offering contracts to a pitcher beyond one year is quite rare. The last pitcher the Braves offered an extension to was Julio Teheran, a six year contract that expired this off-season. The last significant multi-year commitment the Braves made to a pitcher before Teheran was Tim Hudson, whose final year with the Braves was in 2013. Beyond the Braves, Alex Anthopoulos has also not shown a tendency to extend starting pitchers. One reason could be less than productive extensions for young pitchers like Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow during his time in Toronto. There also is the strong emphasis Anthopoulos has placed on maintaining financial flexibility. As a result, any extension for a starting pitcher would be a rare occurrence in Atlanta considering the past decade.

However, a few factors also make an extension completely sensible. While Anthopoulos may have had a few misses on his extension efforts in the past, he certainly has done will overall when it comes to extending young players, especially offensive ones. The extensions for Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies instantly made both of them two of the best values in baseball well into this decade.

Along with the indication that he would like to gain cost certainty and long term control over the Braves talented core, Anthopoulos also must consider the state of the Braves internal pitching potential. For nearly half a decade, the Braves have arguably had the most stacked cupboard of prospect pitching potential in all of baseball. However, despite a plethora of highly talented arms, the fact that only Soroka and Fried have emerged as significant contributors at the MLB level over that time is a bit of a disappointment.

While plenty of these prospects still have time to develop into major league values, the Braves know more than anyone that the natural attrition of prospect arms can be brutal. With the main value of the Braves young core confined to position players, the potential of being able to feature a talent such as Fried at the top of the rotation for years to come has signficicant value. As a result, extending Fried should become a logical priority to ensure some sort of stability n the starting rotation during the Braves expected window of contention.

Atlanta Braves v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

All things considered, it seems pretty clear that both Fried and the Braves have plenty of reason to be open to an extension. A big question becomes when should those talks take place. For the Braves, there is plenty of incentive in doing that sooner rather than later. Fried is not expected to enter arbitration until after the 2021 season. Last offeason, several young and highly talented arms, such as Luis Severino, Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, and German Marquez, signed extensions (ranging between 4-5 yrs and $43M to $50M) coming off breakout campaigns and before entering arbitration. Though injuries and regression prevented any of these talents from repeating there 2018 seasons, each deal is still considered to be of significant value and highly team friendly.

Fried would be in a similar position to many of those names after the 2020 season. Though he will be a bit older and will not have shown as extensive a track record or as high of a ceiling as these names, a similarly structured deal would make plenty of sense for he and the Braves, with a good chance he could become a great value for Atlanta. If the Braves could secure Fried for around $25M-$30M mill over the final four years (21-24) of his span of team control, as well as a free agent year for around $15M-$17M (2025)in the form of a team option, there could be logical incentive to make a deal happen (estimated extension total: 5 years, $45M). If Atlanta wanted to wait another year to see if Fried’s success is sustainable in 2021, then a four year, $50M-$55M deal may make sense for the 2022-2025 seasons. Though it may cost a bit more, the investment will be more validated and still remains higly likely to be a bargain.

Regardless of when a deal could take place. it seems that except for Freddie Freeman, Max Fried might be the most logical extension candidate for the Braves this offseason. With the uncertainty of baseball’s regarding the financial ramifications of a shortened 2020 season and future labor disputes on the horizon, Fried certainly has plenty of reasons to want to guarantee a significant payday for his future in the present. With their desire to remain competitive yet cost conscience and an obvious need to maintain significant pitching talents, the Braves have plenty of reasons to secure a talent such as Fried for the future. Add in the fact that Fried seems to love it in Atlanta and is a favorite among fans and his teammates, ensuring that he is a Brave for the long-term seems to be a sensible priority Atlanta in the near future.