The Braves “explored” the possibility of signing free agent first baseman Anthony Rizzo in November, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. This could have potentially just been standard offseason procedure on the Braves’ part, since as Rosenthal notes, the club will naturally have backup plans in mind should Freddie Freeman sign elsewhere.
Along those same lines, Atlanta has also been linked to the Matt Olson trade market, as Olson (projected to earn $12MM in his second trip through the arbitration process) stands out as a prime trade chip for an Athletics team that is looking to cut costs. It is probably safe to assume that the Braves have looked at other first base options besides just Rizzo and Olson as they prepare for a post-Freeman world, though Rosenthal observes that “most of the industry still expects Freeman to stay with the Braves.”
Still, at least one rival executive is surprised that Freeman is still available, describing it as a “slap in the face” to Freeman that the Braves haven’t already worked out a new contract with the longtime face of the franchise. The most recent reports suggested that the Braves were hesitant about giving Freeman a sixth guaranteed year, and Freeman wanted something closer to a $200MM deal — or at least, perhaps closer to $200MM than the $135MM (over five years) deal that Atlanta offered at some point during negotiations between the two sides.
Rizzo presents an interesting first base alternative, as Rizzo is available for much less than Freeman’s asking price, and can be signed for just money, whereas Atlanta would surely have to send Oakland quite the package of young talent to work out a trade. MLBTR projected Rizzo for a three-year, $45MM pact, while ranking the 32-year-old in 21st place on our list of the offseason’s top 50 free agents.
Of course, the obvious reason for that lower price tag is that while Freeman and Olson are still producing at All-Star levels, Rizzo’s bat has been more modestly productive (109 wRC+) since the start of the 2020 season. Over his last 819 plate appearances, Rizzo has hit .240/.343/.432 with 33 home runs for the Cubs and Yankees. Rizzo’s hard-contact numbers have also been in serious decline, while his 9% walk rate from 2021 was his lowest over a full season. His first base glovework also took a big dip in the eyes of the UZR/150 and Defensive Runs Saved metrics, even if the Outs Above Average metric gave him a +6 (his best OAA score since 2017).
The universal DH would help quell any concerns about Rizzo’s defense, and his left-handed bat would help replace Freeman to some extent within a heavily right-handed Braves lineup. Rizzo is also still one of the better contact hitters in the league, which would help an Atlanta reduce a team strikeout rate that ranked 22nd out of 30 clubs in 2021.