Who said the Braves weren’t willing to pay a pretty penny to keep their talent in-house?
In a move that surprised many, the Atlanta Braves agreed to an eight-year, $135 million deal with first baseman Freddie Freeman on Tuesday. It is the richest contract in club history, overtaking the six-year, $90 million contract given to fan-favorite Chipper Jones in 2000.
While this may seem like an overpay on paper – especially for the Braves, who have a reputation for being conservative with their spending – it has all the makings of being a pretty safe play for them.
Freeman, 23, is coming off an all-star season in which he hit .319 with 23 home runs, 109 RBIs, and 89 runs scored in 147 games. He has improved in each of his first three full major league seasons, and will now become a mainstay in the middle of the Braves lineup for at least the next eight seasons.
The Braves are obviously banking on their homegrown talent to continue his current upswing and remain one of the most productive first basemen in baseball. And, if that trend continues, they could be signing Freeman to this extension at precisely the right time.
If Freeman turns into the offensive anchor they expect him to be, his average annual value of $16.875 million could actually turn out to be a bargain when you consider how much fellow first basemen Mark Teixeira ($23M), Prince Fielder ($23M), Adrian Gonzalez ($21M), Ryan Howard ($20M), and Joey Votto ($17M) make per year.
By locking him up right now for the next eight years, the Braves are saving themselves from the potential crippling contract that they (or another team) would have to be encumbered with when he reaches his max value. The Cubs made a similar move by locking up their prized young shortstop Starlin Castro before last season (for a “reasonable” average annual salary) before he blossomed into the player they expected him to be. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out well for them on the front end as he struggled through a tough 2013 campaign.
Another positive of this deal for the Braves is that Freeman won’t turn 32 until the final month of his new contract, making the risk of decline or physical breakdown over the course of the contract minimal. It’s far less risky to give an eight-year contract to a 23-year-old than a seven or ten-year contract to a 31-year-old, which is what we saw last winter.
And while Freeman may lack the great power to compare with a Chris Davis or Prince Fielder, he makes up for it with his run production in clutch situations. His .443 batting average with runners in scoring position last season was second-best in the majors, and his 1.236 OPS in those situations was second only to AL MVP Miguel Cabrera. There’s no substitute for a consistent hitter that repeatedly delivers in critical situations, and that’s what Freeman does.
Are the Braves taking a calculated risk by investing this much money in a young player that they will now be tied to for the next eight seasons? Sure. But on the other hand, they could be making a move that will solidify the middle of their order for many years to come.
There’s reason to believe in Freddie Freeman for Braves fans, and there’s also reason to believe that this move will ultimately turn out to be a good one for their franchise.