Bolting Braves for Yankees or Dodgers? Five places Freddie Freeman might end up

Sports

Six first basemen have attained nine-figure contracts in their 30s, and the results haven’t necessarily been great. The megadeals for Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols became problems almost immediately. So did the one for Ryan Howard. Deals for Jason Giambi and Carlos Lee started off well but fizzled in the back halves.

Then there’s Paul Goldschmidt, who signed a five-year, $130 million extension with the St. Louis Cardinals in March of 2019, a deal that wouldn’t begin until his age-32 season in 2020. He now serves as the best, most fitting comparison for Freddie Freeman, the five-time All-Star from the World Series champion Atlanta Braves, who surprisingly is still a free agent as Major League Baseball navigates an extended lockout.

Goldschmidt produced like an elite first baseman in the first two years of his deal, boasting an .881 OPS while providing typically excellent defense, and there have been no real signs of a dramatic drop-off. Those things tend to happen quickly, suddenly. But the general hesitancy to splurge on slugging first basemen in recent years doesn’t apply as strongly to Freeman, a naturally gifted hitter and a premier defender who isn’t looking for a deal to take him through his late 30s or into his early 40s.

The sticking point for Freeman, who turned 32 in September, seems to revolve around a sixth guaranteed year, which would mean getting paid among the highest at his position as late as his age-37 season. Will he deserve that kind of money by that point? Probably not. But teams know this when they break the bank for star players; the hope is to receive enough elite production on the front end to justify diminishing value on the back end.

Freeman’s track record suggests he can provide that. From 2011 to 2021, he accumulated the ninth-most FanGraphs wins above replacement (42.4) in baseball while ranking 13th in weighted runs created plus (139) and 12th in OPS (.894). He has finished each of the past nine years with at least three fWAR — including the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, which saw him earn the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. The 2021 season, which ended in a championship, was one of his most productive. Now Freeman is the best hitter in what began as a loaded free-agent class. And because the Braves have yet to lock him up, he will be among the sport’s most coveted players when business resumes.

We’ve identified his five best fits below.

This is an imperfect fit, and undoubtedly a long shot. Some might consider it patently absurd. But Freeman would be a game-changer for a Tigers team that clearly sees itself on the rise. Yes, the Tigers are basically set at all of the positions Freeman’s presence would impact: Cabrera is entrenched as the designated hitter, former No. 1 pick Spencer Torkelson will soon become the every-day first baseman, and Jeimer Candelario is at third base coming off a really strong year. But look a little closer.

Cabrera is 38, heading into the last two years of his career, and is long removed from his days as an elite hitter. Torkelson has received about a third of his minor league time at third base, and the Tigers would probably be willing to stomach some shoddy defense at that position if it meant plugging Freeman into the middle of their lineup. Candelario was the Tigers’ most consistent hitter last season, but he’s also two years away from free agency, so maybe the Tigers could get a few players in a trade and address needs elsewhere.

This is an exciting time in Detroit, with AJ Hinch heading into his second season as the manager. Eduardo Rodriguez and Javier Baez have been signed to contracts totalling $217 million. Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal seem poised to take big steps forward as developing starting pitchers. Torkelson and Riley Greene, the 21-year-old outfielder drafted fifth overall out of high school in 2019, are set to debut. And Freeman could be the final big piece. No, the Tigers don’t need Freeman (what they really need is an outfielder). But his bat could help them challenge for a playoff spot — and set the tone for the next half decade.

Picture a lineup featuring Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. — and Freddie Freeman. The Blue Jays boast one of the most potent offenses in the sport and have stabilized their rotation around Jose Berrios, Hyun Jin Ryu, Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman. But they lost Marcus Semien, a third-place finisher in AL MVP voting last season, and will have a much better chance of emerging in the wildly difficult AL East if they can somehow replace his production.

Freeman represents the easiest path to doing so, even if it is not the most ideal one. Accommodating him would mean a move back to third base for Guerrero, who struggled mightily at the position in 2019 (outs above average rated him a minus-20, last among qualified third basemen by a lot). He should be better, though. Guerrero has good hands. He slimmed down entering 2021 and will play next season as a 23-year-old. The Blue Jays should be able to make this work at least on a part-time basis, given that Guerrero — and Freeman, especially as he gets into his mid-30s — can also get some time at DH.

Corey Seager from 2016 to 2021: .295/.364/.501.

Freddie Freeman from 2016 to 2021: .305/.399/.547.

Seager’s offseason departure to Texas created a void for a left-handed hitter in the No. 2 spot of the Dodgers’ lineup, sandwiched between Mookie Betts and Trea Turner, and who better to fill it than Freeman? The Dodgers, rumored to have interest, can make it work positionally, especially if the DH comes to the National League.

Max Muncy, the team’s regular first baseman, is capable of handling second base, but could also play third, allowing Justin Turner to get off his feet from time to time. Gavin Lux, currently projected as the starting second baseman with Turner replacing Seager at shortstop, famously played the outfield in the postseason (not particularly well, but he can certainly improve). Chris Taylor can fill in anywhere.

Freeman’s presence would make the Dodgers’ lineup look just as scary as it did during the stretch run of the 2021 season, but it could also give them more flexibility to make a trade. Lux — who the Dodgers have always been reluctant to trade — could be used in pursuit of starting-pitching help, preventing the front office from having to overpay in a free-agent market that quickly dried up. Turner — a year away from free agency — could be used to help restock a farm system that has thinned out at the top.

Other possibilities exist, but the big question with the Dodgers, as always, is contract length. It’s hard to see them going six years for Freeman. Their hope, if their budget allows, would probably be to sway him with higher salaries on a shorter deal.

You might have heard this before, but the Yankees need a left-handed hitter. They need a left-handed hitter who can slot into the middle of their lineup. They need a left-handed hitter who plays first base. And they need a left-handed hitter who can change the makeup of an imperfect roster. Matt Olson would be nice, but he would cost the Yankees the types of young players they would prefer to keep. Anthony Rizzo would be good, but not as impactful. Freeman is a difference-maker, and might cost about half as much as Carlos Correa, the star shortstop who would fill another glaring need in the Yankees’ lineup.

The Yankees reportedly seek a much cheaper stopgap at shortstop who can hold the down position until either Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza are ready to take over. Freeman helps to justify that. His signing would put the Yankees’ payroll at a whopping $240 million-plus in 2022, approaching New York Mets territory. But a lot of players are scheduled to come off the books next offseason, including Joey Gallo, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, the latter of whom they would likely want to lock up with an extension. Judge or not, the Yankees can certainly make a Freeman signing work within their budget.

1. Atlanta Braves

This is where Freeman belongs. He is as synonymous with the current Braves as Chipper Jones was with the prior ones, his impact not far off from the ones Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter and Tony Gwynn made for their respective teams. It would be fitting if he retired as a member of the Braves, and perhaps someday have a plaque in Cooperstown with a Braves cap on his head.

The latest reports, dating to early November, stated that the Braves wouldn’t go higher than a five-year, $135 million contract for Freeman, and that Freeman and his camp wanted the sixth year (and $200 million overall). That does not seem like a big enough gap to lose a cornerstone player like Freeman. Not coming off a World Series championship. Not when you consider the losing seasons Freeman endured to emerge as the leader of a team that is now consistently among the best in the sport. Not when he’s still so clearly at his best.

The Braves were famously ravaged by injuries in 2021, so much so that their general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, had to rebuild his entire outfield at midseason. Freeman acted as a steadying presence. He led the NL in plate appearances, ultimately batting .300/.393/.503 to capture his third consecutive Silver Slugger Award. Ronald Acuna Jr. will be back next year. So might Mike Soroka. The Braves should be even better. But only if Freeman returns.

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