When — or whether — the Braves will re-sign Freddie Freeman has been one of the most pressing issues on the minds of the Atlanta fan base for the better part of a year, but the 2020 NL MVP entered the current MLB lockout as a free agent with no real indication of progress toward a return to Truist Park on the horizon. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal writes this morning that there’s obvious incentive for either Freeman or the Braves to act quickly, one way or another, once the lockout finally ends. Most notably, Rosenthal reports that the Braves indeed spoke to the A’s about a potential Matt Olson deal prior to the lockout (as had been previously suggested), adding that the talks should not be written off as simple due diligence.
An early strike by the Braves to acquire Olson would register as nothing short of a stunner. The longstanding belief has been that despite the ostensible lack of traction in talks, Freeman will eventually reach a deal to return to the same team for which he’s played the first dozen seasons of a potential Hall-of-Fame career. It’s been even more widely expected that the A’s will trade Olson, particularly in the wake of comments from GM David Forst that the team will listen to offers on all of its top players (in preparation for a payroll reduction). However, Freeman’s legacy in Atlanta has made the Braves feel like a long shot, at best.
The 27-year-old Olson (28 in March) has been most prominently linked to the Yankees thus far in the offseason, though a good portion of the ink dedicated to that fit has been speculative in nature. The Rangers are among the other clubs to have been tied to Olson on the heels of a career year in Oakland.
Olson, the No. 47 overall draft pick back in 2012, dramatically reduced his strikeout rate this past season without conceding anything in terms of power or walk rate. He’d fanned in 26.1% of his career plate appearances heading into 2021, including a career-worst 31.4% clip in 2020, but slashed that mark to 16.8% this past season. Meanwhile, he walked at a 13.1% clip and slugged a career-best 39 home runs and 35 doubles — all while playing standout defense at first base. He’s controlled for another two seasons before free agency and projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $12MM this coming year in the first of those two campaigns.
If the Braves were to make the unpopular decision to move on from Freeman, Olson would represent the best option — at least among plausibly available targets in free agency and on the trade market. Alternatives such as free agent Anthony Rizzo or trade candidate Luke Voit would be less impactful. That said, the $12MM projection on Olson’s 2021 salary is more than twice as much as this past season’s $5MM salary, and he’d be in line for a similarly massive raise for the 2023 campaign before hitting free agency in arguably an even better position than Freeman currently occupies.
While Freeman, of course, has the lengthier track record, Olson stands to reach the open market in advance of his age-30 season. Freeman will play the bulk of the upcoming season at 32 before turning 33 in September. Should Olson continue at his 2021 pace — or anything close to it — he could viably seek a contract of even greater length and/or greater total value than Freeman is currently seeking; an extension for Olson wouldn’t figure to be much cheaper, given his blend of youth, recent track record and relative proximity to the open market.
Also vital to consider is the enormous asking price that’s sure to be placed on Olson. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted a couple months back that the Athletics were “shooting for the moon” in any talks regarding Olson — understandably so. It’s increasingly rare in MLB to see a player of this caliber, with this much club control remaining, actually change hands on the trade market. Using FanGraphs’ wins above replacement as a loose barometer, Olson would be the third-best player (based on 2019-21 WAR) with multiple years of control remaining to be traded over the past three years. One of the two names ahead of him, Nolan Arenado, isn’t really a comparable given that he’d already been signed to a massive extension that impacted the nature of trade talks between the Rockies and Cardinals.
The other name ahead of Olson in those WAR rankings is perhaps the best and most direct recent comparable: Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. The Phils surrendered one of baseball’s 15 best overall prospects (Sixto Sanchez), plus an immediate MLB-ready replacement (Jorge Alfaro, who’d recently ranked as a top prospect himself) and a solid mid-tier organizational arm in lefty Will Stewart. Starling Marte was traded from Pittsburgh to Arizona when he had two years remaining on his contract, netting the Bucs now-top-100 prospect Liover Peguero and pitching prospect Brennan Malone. However, Marte was 31 at the time of that trade and wasn’t coming off nearly as strong a season as Olson’s 2021 showing.
Simply put, a package to acquire Olson should considerably outpace what the Bucs received for Marte, and he arguably ought to fetch more than Realmuto did. That’s not to suggest that an Olson package would be a direct, apples-to-apples comparison with the Realmuto swap — but rather to illustrate the sizable value that a player of this caliber carries when he has multiple years of control remaining. Certainly, the packages would differ. For instance, Atlanta doesn’t have a prospect who’s currently as well-regarded as Sanchez was at the time that deal. The A’s could well have different priorities than the Marlins did, too; they’d surely require a premium headliner but have also been known to pursue volume-based approaches of MLB-ready talent rather than packages strictly composed of far-off, but high-upside minor leaguers. (See their return packages for Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, Rich Hill/Josh Reddick, Ryan Madson/Sean Doolittle and more.)
If the Braves’ primary trepidation regarding a Freeman deal is the length of the contract, as has been oft-suggested, then an Olson acquisition may only be a slightly more palatable road to traverse — unless the front office is content to ship out heaps of young talent in exchange for a two-year rental and a subsequent draft pick (if the qualifying offer system even remains in place following the collective bargaining talks). Broadly speaking, the sorts of contracts currently being sought by Freeman and likely to be sought by Olson in the near future are the very types that Atlanta president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos has eschewed since being hired in Nov. 2017.
While the Braves slightly broke from their aversion to long-term commitments in last winter’s ill-fated re-signing of Marcell Ozuna (four years, $65MM), even that contract only materialized after Ozuna was unable to secure the fifth year he originally sought. Outside of that four-year pact, the Braves have shown a strong preference for shorter-term deals, often at premium annual values — a similar philosophy to that of the Dodgers, where Anthopoulos served as senior vice president of baseball ops prior to being hired in Atlanta. Will Smith’s three-year, $39MM deal is the next-largest free agent deal given out under Anthopoulos in Atlanta. The only times he’s gone to five years or more have been on wildly team-friendly deals for young stars Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies.
Whether the Braves are willing to break that mold for Freeman can’t be known, but it’s nevertheless notable that they’ve had talks with the A’s about a potential replacement. It’s perhaps even more telling that, as Rosenthal suggests, either Freeman or the Braves could move quickly in a new direction post-lockout after spending the past 12 months in a staring contest.