Inside the yearlong contract saga that split up Freddie Freeman and the Atlanta Braves

Inside the yearlong contract saga that split up Freddie Freeman and the Atlanta Braves

THE SPLIT OF Freddie Freeman and the Atlanta Braves sent shock waves through the industry: It felt like the divorce of a seemingly happy couple, bringing to an end more than a decade of apparent joy and contentment. Freeman, the 2020 NL MVP, was a beloved favorite of Atlanta fans. For years, the Braves had presented him as the worthy heir to a legacy passed along by Henry Aaron, and by Chipper Jones, once Freeman’s teammate and now a close friend.

But after Freeman’s protracted contract talks with the Braves failed — a development that left him devastated, according to friends in the organization — he agreed to a six-year, $162 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is scheduled to be introduced by his new team Friday.

“I feel like I lost a family member,” says Jones, who mentored Freeman at the outset of his career and felt his friend’s pain over an hourlong FaceTime call the night that the deal with the Dodgers went down. “I lost a little brother. And that hurts.”

“I wish like anything that we could go back in time, just about a week, and have a do-over. Just for Freddie’s sake.”

According to multiple industry sources who helped shed light on the negotiations, Freddie Freeman’s divorce from the Braves took shape over the past year, while discussions between GM Alex Anthopoulos and Freeman’s camp, Excel Agency, barely moved. Talks remained at an impasse until one final and immediate deadline that was set last Saturday and expired that same evening. When the sides couldn’t come to an agreement, the Braves pulled their long-standing offer to Freeman off the table, pivoted quickly and traded for Oakland first baseman Matt Olson, signing him to the richest contract in club history.

In the end, the total value of the deal Freeman accepted from the Dodgers turned out to be not far from where the Braves’ final proposal landed, especially considering the thick state tax of California (as well as possible contractual deferrals, a hallmark of a lot of the Dodgers’ deals in recent years).

For Jones, the hardest thing to swallow is how close the two sides seemed. “I have no doubt, the Braves would’ve gone to 145 or 150,” he says. “I’m not going to speak for Alex. I don’t know the interactions between Alex and Excel. But somewhere in there was miscommunication, lack of communication, something…

“From my conversations with Freddie,” Jones says, “he wanted to stay. I’m just not so sure the way that he and his camp handled it was the way to make it happen.”

THE BRAVES HAD made an opening offer to Freeman in the spring of 2021, but it was an undervalue deal that was customary of how the franchise conducted its baseball business following the 2020 pandemic season. The Braves, like other teams, had cut payroll, shedding productive players like Adam Duvall, Darren O’Day and Mark Melancon. So it was no surprise that the spring proposal fell far short of what Freeman’s representatives, Casey Close and Vic Menocal of the Excel Agency, sought on the player’s behalf.

But Atlanta’s revenue trajectory changed quickly. The Braves were among the first teams to open their stands to fans, and Atlanta finished second among major league teams in attendance in 2021. Ownership gave the Braves’ baseball operations the go-ahead to make deals in July, and Anthopoulos traded for Joc Pederson, Duvall, Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario and others.

Around the same time, at last summer’s trade deadline, the Braves finally moved in their negotiations with Freeman, offering him $125 million over five years, according to sources. The response from Freeman’s camp remained consistent with what had been communicated before — he would agree only to a deal that included a sixth year. In the weeks that followed, the Braves bumped their offer to $135 million over five years.

According to two league sources, the team was using Paul Goldschmidt‘s five-year, $130 million deal with the Cardinals as a comparable contract. At the time of Goldschmidt’s contract with St. Louis in 2019, he was 31 years old, a little younger than Freeman, who turned 32 last September.

Jones is a special assistant with the Atlanta Braves, the team for which he played 19 seasons, and he is often at Truist Park. Last August, as Freeman was closing in on free agency for the first time in his career, Jones recalled pulling him aside. “I told him, ‘If you go to free agency, and you get courted by all … the big-market teams — you’re not coming back,'” Jones said.

But more than that, Jones said, he implored Freeman not to try to play the Braves — from his experience working with the front office, he warned Freeman that they would call his bluff.

“I told Freddie, ‘You’re playing a dangerous, dangerous game … They will move on without you, because Alex has a job to do. If he doesn’t do that job, he puts his job in jeopardy.'”

In speaking with reporters all season, Freeman publicly deflected conversations about his negotiations, saying he was focused on his family and what the Braves were trying to accomplish on the field — which was a remarkable turnaround. In Freeman’s last 55 games of the regular season, he batted .323 and the Braves went 37-18. When Atlanta made short work of all of their postseason opponents, eventually beating the Astros in six games in the World Series, it felt like a storybook ending — and the perfect moment for Atlanta’s favorite son to agree to continue his stay.

All that time, the Braves’ five-year offer remained on the table, including through a prelockout November in which there was little communication between the team and Freeman’s camp. Close maintained that Freeman needed a sixth year in any offer from the Braves, and he began talking to other clubs. Without a deal on Dec. 2, after the owners locked out the players, Anthopoulos and Close did not negotiate for the 99 days of the labor shutdown.

When the business of baseball resumed, the Braves reconnected with Freeman’s representatives. Anthopoulos nudged Atlanta’s offer upward, to $140 million over five years.

On Friday, March 11, there was a report that the Dodgers were making an intense push to sign Freeman. The next day, Close and Anthopoulos spoke, and, according to four sources, Close told Anthopoulos that the Braves had an hour to accept one of two proposals — a six-year, $175 million deal, an average of a little more than $29 million a year, or a five-year, $165 million deal, an average of $33 million per season.

Anthopoulos rejected both of Excel’s proposals. The two sides agreed on only this: All offers and proposals were off the table. Both sides needed to prepare for an Atlanta squad without Freddie Freeman.

QUICKLY, ANTHOPOULOS BEGAN making those plans — and he knew that if Freeman was not going to be the Braves’ first baseman, he needed a star: a high-end player for the sake of the team’s run production and defense. The Braves have won the NL East each of the past four years, with Freeman at first base, but their competition was only getting tougher: Mets owner Steve Cohen has spent aggressively this offseason, adding ace Max Scherzer, center fielder Starling Marte and others; the Phillies have loaded up on bullpen help, and locked up Kyle Schwarber.

So very late on Sunday, March 13 — a day after Anthopoulos ended talks with Freeman’s camp — Anthopoulos reached out to Billy Beane, who heads baseball operations for the Athletics, and asked for Beane’s price for Olson. For Oakland, this was an opportunity to deal with a desperate trade partner. As one executive said, “Billy knew Alex couldn’t roll out Joey BagofDoughnuts out there at first base to replace Freddie Freeman.”

But if they got a star, the Braves could shape the conversation around Freeman’s departure. The message to the team would be that even without Freeman, the team was serious about winning.

Olson was a seemingly perfect candidate: an All-Star, a big-time power hitter and an excellent defender. And the cherry on top for the Braves is that he was born and raised in the Atlanta area. He had grown up a Braves fan, rooting for Jones and others. All of that added to his potential public-relations value to the Braves’ organization, no small consideration.

As Freeman remained unsigned, the Braves’ ownership and Anthopoulos had borne the brunt of criticism over the negotiations for months — and the scrutiny climbed after the disclosure that the team’s parent company, the publicly traded Liberty Media, had profited greatly in 2021.

About noon on Monday, Beane presented his final asking price to Anthopoulos: a four-prospect package, fronted by catcher Shea Langeliers and outfielder Cristian Pache. Anthopoulos said yes. Not long after, Pache was called into a side office in the Braves’ clubhouse. As he emerged, he told teammates he was part of a deal for Olson.

Anthopoulos met with reporters, and with his voice cracking, he talked about how hard it had been to make the trade — although he couldn’t say exactly why. Because of baseball’s rules, he couldn’t say out loud that Freeman, an unsigned free agent, would not return.

Anthopoulos called Olson and welcomed him, but startled the first baseman by saying that his next phone call would be to Olson’s agent, BB Abbott, to talk about a multiyear deal. And then Anthopoulos told Abbott that he intended to be aggressive with his offer. His aim was to sign Olson before he was introduced to the media the next day.

In his history of negotiations with Anthopoulos, Abbott says, “Alex is someone you don’t negotiate against. He’s someone you negotiate with. … You work with him and tell him what you want.”

This exchange was no different. Atlanta’s first proposal was $140 million over seven years, and when Abbott countered, it kicked off rapid-fire haggling. Olson boarded a plane in Arizona at 11:50 p.m., and Abbott told his client to get on Wi-Fi because he’d need to get in touch with him during the flight. After some back and forth, Abbott proposed $168 million over eight years, with a club option for a ninth year. When Anthopoulos agreed, Abbott texted the numbers to Olson, who has made about $6.1 million in his career to date.

Olson responded: Are you serious?

When Abbott confirmed the numbers, Olson replied: Holy s—.

He still could barely believe it — he asked Abbott if the money was all guaranteed.

Yes. All of it.

AFTER NEWS OF the trade broke, Freeman connected with a lot of his Braves teammates, and their perception was that he was broken-hearted over the turn of events. With Olson rooted at first base for years to come, there was no going back.

Jones FaceTimed with Freeman on Wednesday, an ’emotional’ hourlong conversation. “I didn’t want to sound like a dad,” Jones says. “I didn’t want to say ‘I told you so.'”

It was time for Freeman to get serious about his other options — on Wednesday, he told Jones that he had one formal offer in hand, and he and his camp had had conversations with several teams over the previous weeks and months.

Last November, at Close’s request, New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone chatted with Freeman on a 30-minute Zoom call in the short free-agency period before the lockout. According to several AL sources, they came away impressed. That he was potentially a perfect fit for their lineup and ballpark was obvious: Manager Aaron Boone could break up the long string of right-handed hitters by placing Freeman between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, and Freeman, as a left-handed hitter, could take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch. But Cashman told Close that he just didn’t see the budgetary space developing for the Yankees. With big money already committed to Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton, and with Aaron Judge’s free agency looming, the Yankees were not comfortable committing to another nine-figure contract.

The message from the Boston Red Sox to Freeman’s camp was that they really liked the player, but a deal in the range being discussed was not going to work; Boston has two young first basemen already, in Bobby Dalbec and top prospect Triston Casas.

The Toronto Blue Jays talked to Freeman’s representatives, but they too had serious complications of redundancy; first base is the best possible position for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. In the end, their first aggressive infield move was a trade for third baseman Matt Chapman, who was Olson’s teammate in Oakland.

The Tampa Bay Rays were very serious about Freeman, offering two deals, both of which met Freeman’s length requirement: six for $140 million or seven for $150 million. According to one source, there was a sense that, if asked, the Rays would go up to $150 million for six years. That offer remained on the table and, as rival executives noted, may have been worth more than what Freeman will make in L.A. once state taxes are factored in.

But the allure of the Dodgers, with whom Freeman’s camp had been speaking since the start of free agency, remained strong for the Orange County native. On Wednesday, a few days after Freeman’s negotiations with the Braves broke down, the Dodgers made their formal offer — six years, $162 million. However he felt about leaving Atlanta, Freeman had the opportunity to return home with his family, playing for a World Series favorite in a stadium just 37 miles from El Modena High School, his alma mater.

On Friday morning, Freeman arrived at the Dodgers’ facility in Arizona wearing a suit and a smile, carrying a first baseman’s mitt. For the first time in more than a decade, he was ready for his first day of work in a new office.

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Author: Shirley