“You couldn’t find a soul who believes [Freddie] Freeman won’t be returning to Atlanta,” USA Today’s Bob Nightengale writes about the general consensus around the GM Meetings this week. Despite this widespread expectation that Freeman and the Braves will eventually work out a new contract, that certainty can’t be at a full 100 percent, considering that the two sides weren’t able to agree to an extension before Freeman reached free agency.
Nightengale also provides some numbers in regards to the negotiations, as Freeman and his representatives are looking for a deal in the range of six years and $200MM. That is a sizeable bump over one Atlanta offer that Freeman has already turned down, with the Braves offering $135MM over a five-year pact. Details weren’t provided on when exactly this five-year/$135MM offer was floated, whether it was a recent offer on the Braves’ part or if it came earlier in the year. Reports from back in September already indicated that some type of “gap” existed between the two sides in contract talks, and a $65MM difference would certainly qualify.
Paul Goldschmidt’s five-year, $130MM extension with the Cardinals prior to the 2019 season has long been cited as a potential comp for a new Freeman contract, since both deals involved star first baseman entering their age-32 seasons, and both players are even represented by the same agency (Excel Sports Management). This comparison point clearly stood out for the Braves, considering their offer to Freeman was only slightly above the Goldschmidt deal.
However, a case could certainly be made that Freeman is worth more than just a $5MM bump, for starters due to the simple fact that the Goldschmidt extension is over two years’ old. Freeman also has a longer track record as an Atlanta icon (whereas the Cardinals had just acquired Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks a few months’ prior) and Freeman just won the NL MVP Award in the abbreviated 2020 season. If the Braves’ offer came very recently, it seems like even more of an undervalue, considering Freeman had another big year in 2021 and then an enormous performance in the playoffs to help the Braves win the World Series.
Beyond just the dollar figure, the sixth year stands out as a potential sticking point. Committing over $32MM in average annual value to a first base-only player into his age-37 season carries its share of risk, especially for a Braves team that operates within a fairly limited payroll. Roster Resource estimates that Atlanta finished the 2021 season with $145MM in payroll expenditures, which would represent the highest number since Liberty Media bought the franchise in 2007.
Alex Anthopoulos has already said that the team will raise payroll coming off their World Series triumph, and the president of baseball operations made a point of mentioning the mutual interest between both the Braves and Freeman in continuing their relationship: “We’ve made it clear we want him to stay. He wants to stay.” Looking at Atlanta’s current payroll, however, the Braves already have over $141MM committed for 2022. Even factoring in some or most of Marcell Ozuna’s $16MM salary being reduced by suspension, Liberty Media would have to go way beyond their historical comfort zone ccommodate something in the range of a $30MM salary for Freeman, not to mention any other additions the Braves would need to fill any other roster holes.
Freeman ranked third on MLBTR’s list of the winter’s top 50 free agents, and while our prediction didn’t quite hit the $200MM threshold, Freeman is projected for a six-year, $180MM contract. Freeman has proven to be enough of an elite talent that such a deal is likely to be out there for him somewhere on the open market, so the Braves may now face a bidding war to keep their longtime star in the fold.