Many both within and outside the baseball industry were surprised when Freddie Freeman signed with the Dodgers last offseason. The general expectation had been that he’d re-sign with the Braves, continuing his career-long stint in the organization. Yet that was foreclosed when Atlanta acquired Matt Olson from the A’s shortly after the lockout, and Freeman landed in L.A. a few days later.
The course of events over the final few days of negotiations has been a subject of controversy, one that resurfaced over the weekend when a visibly emotional Freeman made his return to Atlanta. The 2020 NL MVP received his World Series ring and caught up with many former teammates and coaches, and he understandably struggled to put into words how much his time in the Braves organization had meant to himself and his family.
On Tuesday, Buster Olney of ESPN reported that Freeman had dismissed his longtime agency, Excel Sports Management, out of frustration with how his free agent process played out. Freeman himself characterized the matter differently, conceding his representation was a “fluid situation” but leaving open the possibility of mending fences with Excel and expressing a desire to move forward with the Dodgers.
The controversy was reignited yesterday when Fox Sports Radio host Doug Gottlieb tweeted that Excel’s lead negotiator Casey Close never informed Freeman about a final offer from the Braves. Gottlieb alleges Close “knew (Freeman) would have taken the Atlanta deal” but made the unilateral decision to withhold it from his client, ostensibly because he felt he could top the offer elsewhere. Close forcefully denied that notion last night, releasing a statement (on Twitter) that reads “Doug Gottlieb tweeted a wholly inaccurate characterization of our negotiations with the Atlanta Braves on behalf of Freddie Freeman. We are immediately evaluating all legal options to address the reckless publication of inaccurate information.”
This afternoon, Close put out another statement taking aim at the Braves themselves. In a release first tweeted by Jeff Passan of ESPN, Close alleged “the Braves have fostered a narrative about the negotiations which, stated plainly, is false. Part of that false narrative is the suggestion that I did not communicate a contract offer to the Freemans. To be clear, we communicated every offer that was made, as well as every communication Excel had with the Braves organization throughout the entire process.”
Close didn’t take aim at anyone specific in his statement. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Freeman acknowledged in late March that he had a three-hour conversation with Atlanta president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos “to hear his side of things” after initially implying that Anthopoulos and his staff hadn’t been especially forthcoming during the free agent process (link via Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Freeman made more general reference to communications with Braves personnel this week, telling reporters (including Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times) he’d “learned a lot” about his free agency “because I talked to the other side.”
Throughout the winter, the holdup between the Braves and Freeman seemed to be on the issue of a sixth guaranteed year. Atlanta was reluctant to go beyond five years for the 32-year-old. Justin Toscano of the Journal-Constitution hears from a source who suggests Freeman’s camp had offered the Braves a choice between two offers: $165MM over five years or $175MM over six years. Atlanta declined to meet those numbers and, according to Toscano, the sides mutually agreed to move on. (Olney wrote this week that the Braves had nudged their final offer to around five years and $140MM). The Braves acquired Olson two days later; Freeman wound up signing a six-year, $162MM offer with the Dodgers, although deferrals reduced the contract’s net present value to around $149MM.
Whatever caused talks between the Braves and Freeman to hit a stumbling block, the fallout has involved an ugly spat between his former team and one of the game’s most influential agents. Excel Sports Management represents dozens of players, including stars like Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Paul Goldschmidt, Kyle Tucker and high-profile impending free agents Andrew Benintendi and Dansby Swanson. Swanson has already stated the Freeman saga wouldn’t have any effect on his choice of representation, as he has no plans to leave Excel before his first trip to the open market.
There’s obviously some level of tension between the agency and the Atlanta organization, but it’s worth noting neither Close nor anyone with the Braves has suggested there’ll be adverse effects on negotiations between the team and other Excel clients. It stands to reason the Braves will have some interest in re-signing Swanson, a Georgia native and six-year starting shortstop who’s amidst the best season of his career.