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Trying to understand why the Freddie Freeman extension hasn’t happened

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MLB: Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the year, my thoughts on a possible Freddie Freeman extension were pretty clear:

At 3:17 PM on February 25th, I felt the biggest question surrounding the extension was when it was going to happen. Not if. I just couldn’t imagine a scenario where the Braves let their franchise player walk out the door right in the middle of their contention window. Especially with their other superstar, Ronald Acuna Jr, locked up on such a team-friendly deal.

But six months later, we’re still waiting.

Unbelievably, unfathomably Freddie Freeman is under contract for just three more weeks. From the outside, the Braves and their All-Star first-baseman don’t appear any closer to a deal than they did back in February. There was this tweet yesterday from Jon Heyman that was at least update, but hardly a positive one:

Believe or not, just the fact that they’re talking to each other about it is an improvement from what’s been reported all season, that the Braves hadn’t yet even approached the subject with the Freeman. Also shout out to Heyman for somehow in the same tweet calling a free agency a “strong possibility” but also describing it as a ‘likelihood” that a deal gets done.

If you believe his report, there’s still a financial “gap” between the two sides and considering it’s September 10th, it feels like the odds of this getting done have gone from almost certain to now unlikely. Players at Freeman’s level don’t sign extensions this close to free agency, basically ever. Once it gets to this point, they just let free agency play out. Obviously, any of this can change at a moments notice with one tweet from the Braves official account. But at the time of writing this, it doesn’t look good .

So what happened? How did this deal, that almost everyone in baseball thought was forgone conclusion, get here?

I think it’s a little more complicated than what it looks like on the surface. On the surface, it just looks the Braves are royally screwing this up and they should pay him whatever he wants. Beneath the surface, President of Baseball Ops Alex Anthopolous has quite a bit more to consider.

First of all, the COVID-19 global pandemic changed everything from a financial standpoint. A season with zero revenue coming from fans in stadiums hurt every team in baseball but disproportionately hurt teams whose TV deals aren’t spectacular and who draw the majority of their revenue from game-day operations. The Braves are one of these teams. The financial aftermath of the 2020 season undoubtedly has played a role in the team being tighter with their pocketbook than they would normally be. Coming into the 2020 season, payroll was pushing $150M and trending up. Coming into the 2021 season, payroll was closer to $125M. In between was a global pandemic. That’s obviously not a coincidence. Without the pandemic, I think Freddie Freeman would’ve been locked up by now.

But it it’s not just the pandemic. If you’ve followed baseball the last 5-10 years, you know as the analytical age has dawned, how teams value players has changed as has the type of players that are most sought after. As we’ve become better at measuring a player’s impact on defense and on the bases, all-around players seen their value increase. Guys who contribute in every aspect of the game. The list of players that have signed the biggest contracts the last few years include Bryce Harper, Fernando Tatis Jr, Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, etc. All complete players, usually under the age of 30, who play a valuable defensive position. These are the type of players teams are earmarking the biggest chunks of their payrolls. The players that have seen their value take the biggest hit are the guys over 30, who don’t play the most valuable defensive positions and therefore are more likely to only contribute with the bat.

Essentially the 1B/LF/DH types.

If you look around baseball, and especially at the best teams, they don’t pay huge money for these roles anymore. And the one’s who have almost instantly have regretted it. Just looking at first-base, the most recent examples of players over 30 who have signed huge deals have almost all been disasters for the respective teams. The Miguel Cabrera contract, the Chris Davis contract, Prince Fielder contract, Adrain Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Eric Hosmer, even back a little further to Ryan Howard, Mark Texieria, Jason Giambi etc. It’s a graveyard of bad deals. And the rest of league notices when these contracts blow up.

Even the closest comp to Freddie Freeman, which has been the Paul Goldschmidt extension hasn’t worked out the way the Cardinals have hoped, as Goldshcmidt has seen about a 20% drop in his production since signing that deal.

This all matters to Freddie Freeman and it especially matters to Alex Anthopolous. Much like the Dodgers or the Astros, teams have become much more comfortable letting 1B/DH be a spot that several different guys can play and use a rotation of sorts to keep guys fresh. And pretty much every team that does have a 30+ year old, everyday 1B on a huge contract wishes they didn’t, with the only exception being the Braves and maybe the Reds, though I think in an honest moment, Cincinnati would get out of that deal if they could. The Giants with Brandon Belt and the White Sox with Abreu are other examples but if the Braves only had to pay the $70M San Francisco paid Belt or the $50M the White Sox paid Abreu, a deal would already be done. They’ll have to pay substantially more and when you’re operating as the only exception to a rule, you have to proceed carefully.

This is where I think the Braves have slowed down the Freeman talks. They’re looking at changing landscape of how these types of player are being valued and taking it cautiously. Freeman turns 32 on Sunday. He’s a first-baseman. And it’s going to take well over $100M to sign him. Fair or not, right or not, in 2021 these are red flags for GMs. And when talking about a nine figure contract, red flags have to be considered.

Because the nature of this post, the first 900 words or so have I’m sure come across as me making the argument for why the Braves shouldn’t re-sign Freddie Freeman. To be clear, I don’t believe that. I think they should re-sign him. Maybe not at whatever number he wants, but as long as the offer is respectful relative to the comps, they should re-sign him. The quantifiable reason being that the Braves are more likely to win a World Series with him than without him. The more subjective reasons being who he is and what he’s meant to the organization. He’s quietly gone about his business through a massive rebuild, multiple front offices, scandals, embarrassments, cheap owners, terrible teams, etc. He’s earned the right to end his career in Atlanta even if he’s making more money than the spreadsheets say he’s worth as moves into his 30s.

But Anthopolous has to consider it all. The ramifications of such a deal relative to the rest of the roster, the changing climate in player evaluations, the financial uncertainty caused by a global pandemic, the public relations nightmare if they don’t re-sign him, fan backlash, still trying to build a World Series team and on and on. Treating it like a forgone conclusion like we all did in the winter was probably short-sighted. It’s a complicated situation that impacts every aspect of the team now, and for the next decade of Braves’ baseball.