It’s official. Freddie Freeman is not returning to the Atlanta Braves. We knew this, even before ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel and Jeff Passan reported that Freeman had agreed to a six-year, $162 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers late Wednesday night. We knew this, in part, because the Braves had already acquired his replacement, former Oakland Athletics first baseman Matt Olson. But we knew it mostly because Freeman himself made it Instagram official. That’s when you know it’s real.
Seriously though, the 2020 National League MVP is heading to a team that was already the World Series favorites. Where do we begin? How about here: For the past few months, sporadic reports about negotiations between Freeman’s representatives and the Braves suggested that the obstacle in the talks was the length of the deal. Freeman wanted six years; the Braves did not want to give him six years. That was the scuttlebutt, anyway.
Well, surely if the Braves, the only organization for whom Freeman has played and with whom he had become entrenched as the face of a championship team, didn’t want to go six years, then no one wanted to go six years. Except — the Dodgers went six years. More than a few Braves fans will read that news and find it more than a little bitter.
Make no mistake: Any rational model of surplus value will tell you that the Braves did just fine by trading four prospects to Oakland for Olson then almost immediately signing their new first baseman to an eight-year, $168 million extension. Olson is coming off his age-27 season, while Freeman just completed his age-31 season.
In other words, the Braves are getting Olson for more prime seasons than the theoretically post-prime Freeman and at a lower average annual value. Those are the cold, hard numbers. In my rough model for surplus value, even figuring in the future valuations of the four prospects the Braves traded for Olson, Atlanta comes out comfortably ahead by locking up Olson rather than keeping the prospects and inking Freeman to the deal that Los Angeles gave Freeman.
For any Braves fans still stewing about the loss of Freeman as opposed to the acquisition of Olson, though, this deal is not going to make you feel any better. Because what this contract says is that the Dodgers — baseball’s most successful team over the past decade or so and one of its most advanced in pretty much all areas of scouting, development and analysis — thought Freeman was worth six years at $27 million per season, an offer that the Braves could have just as easily made.
Maybe it won’t work. Maybe Freeman won’t produce enough WAR to justify his remuneration on the balance sheet. If you look at the Similarity Scores section of Freeman’s baseball-reference.com page, you see something remarkable: Hall of Famer Eddie Murray has been the most similar player statistically to Freeman in each season from the time he was 21 through last season. Both players were/have been among the most consistent, all-around offensive players of their respective generations. The patterns of production are almost exactly like a Freeman batting practice session: metronomic.
But of note to Dodgers fans going into Freeman’s age-32 season: There was a before/after divide in Murray’s career that longtime L.A. fans will remember all too well. In the five seasons leading up to and including his age-31 season, Murray produced a 144 OPS+ and 5.2 bWAR per 650 plate appearances. (Freeman is also at 144. I mean, it’s uncanny. His WAR/650 PA over the past five seasons is 4.6). But in the six seasons after that — the equivalent period will be the duration of Freeman’s new contract — Murray was at a 123 OPS+ and just 2.4 bWAR/650 PA. Just to further the comparison: Three of those seasons came in a Dodgers uniform.
Now, that’s a sample size of one, and there’s no reason to assume that’s the path Freeman is headed toward. Players age differently, and Freeman has shown little to no sign of aging so far. Over the past three campaigns, Freeman has a 142 OPS+, has won an MVP award and has continued to play plus defense. His strikeout rates and isolated power figures over the past few years have been better than during the first phase of his career and, again, he has just been so consistent.
So if you are projecting an age-related fall-off for Freeman, you’re not basing that on anything Freeman has done, but on what other players have done over time, which has established the baseline of expectation by which we judge the aging process of players.
On Wednesday, the Dodgers cast a vote against that baseline of expectation. And if the Dodgers are right — and they usually are — then Atlanta-based Freeman fans are going to have to watch his second act unfold from across the country, and perhaps watch Freeman batter their local team in October, as both clubs figure to be in the pennant mix for years to come.
Now, for the Dodgers, Freeman is a luxury item, as most Dodgers free-agency splurges are. LA already rated as the favorite to win the National League before the Freeman news. That is still the case. They are the only team for which the acquisition of a player of Freeman’s caliber is but a marginal upgrade.
Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. While Freeman is a slight upgrade because of the mix of players the Dodgers already have, signing him means one of the Dodgers’ competitors did not. That’s a group that includes, among others, the Atlanta Braves.
To put some numbers to it, I ran some fresh simulations with Freeman on the Dodgers’ roster. Here are the gains Los Angeles made over those 10,000 simulated seasons:
0.9 wins, bringing them to a baseline of 100.3 victories, 2.8 wins more than the second-best forecast in baseball, which belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays
370 division titles, bringing them to a 76.3 percent probability of recapturing a very tough division
307 pennants, raising the Dodgers’ probability of returning to the World Series to about one in three
204 championships, bringing L.A.’s title probability to 19.9 percent, the highest in baseball
This is the thing we’ve been saying about the Dodgers’ roster decisions for years now. When you’re as good as the Dodgers, doing nothing is always a viable option. So when you do choose to act, you’re going to be selective about it: Your roster is already so good that your acquisition has to be really, really good to make you better.
Freeman makes the Dodgers better. He also makes them more expensive. What this means in terms of L.A.’s ongoing tete-a-tete with the luxury tax threshold is murky, because of the uncertainty around a possible suspension for pitcher Trevor Bauer (currently on the books for $35.3 million this season). If Bauer earns his full salary this season, the Dodgers would be looking at clearing all but the fourth and highest level of baseball’s new luxury tax hierarchy, now known as the Cohen Tax because of the Mets’ free-spending owner.
But after this season, the Dodgers have a ton of money coming off the books, including the contract of David Price, and will look to build a new pay hierarchy that is topped by Freeman and Mookie Betts. In the end, money is not and will never be a problem for the Dodgers.
On the field, Freeman gives the Dodgers the potent, all-around lefty bat to soak up any shortfall that may have opened up on that side of the plate due to the departure of infielder Corey Seager. His presence pushes Max Muncy off an everyday role at first base, and Muncy will join the mix of interchangeable-but-outstanding parts that Dave Roberts has to fit together on a daily basis.
Muncy will play some second base and DH. He’ll battle Gavin Lux and Chris Taylor for time at those spots. The latter two will also back up Justin Turner at the hot corner. Lux will fill in for Trea Turner at shortstop if needed. Roberts’ battle will be to get enough at-bats for players who would be everyday fixtures on most clubs.
For Freeman, the move should be seamless. As much as he has been the cornerstone of the Braves, he is a Southern California native who grew up in Orange County as an Angels fan. He’s spent offseasons in the area for years, and now he can look forward to spending all year in his home city, save for an easy trip to spring training every year in Glendale, Ariz.
One would expect to see more than a few “the Dodgers overpaid” takes — but don’t believe them. The Dodgers make mistakes, as all teams do, but if they think Freeman is worth six years, $162 million, then that’s what he’s worth. And if you need to watch Freeman spending the next six years as a catalyst who helps the Dodgers maintain their status as the class of the National League to believe it, just wait. You very well might see just that.