MLB free agency – Zack Greinke, Freddie Freeman and the lost beauty of the one-team player

MLB free agency – Zack Greinke, Freddie Freeman and the lost beauty of the one-team player

This week, two things became true: Future Hall of Famer Zack Greinke will begin this season where he began his career, with the Kansas City Royals. And, for the first time in his 12-year career, future Hall of Famer — and soon to be Los Angeles DodgerFreddie Freeman will not be suiting up with the Atlanta Braves.

This is also true: Both Kansas City and Atlanta have a very good chance at being better this season than last. Yes, Atlanta won a World Series, but the Braves also were under .500 for much of last season and finished the regular season with just 88 wins. The Royals have been rebuilding for the past four years, and are finally ready to contend.

In the end, the Braves and Royals may be better because of the moves they made this week, in spite of them, or a little of both. There are no guarantees one way or the other. In the short term, there is little in terms of bottom-line value to separate Greinke from Mike Minor, whom Greinke ostensibly replaced on the K.C. roster, or Freeman from Matt Olson, whom Atlanta acquired to take over for the face of their franchise.

This week, as baseball’s post-lockout transactions have turned on like a firehose, most of the pieces on this site and others have been grading the impact of moves like these. It’s been fun, exhausting and a little dizzying. With one update to my forecasting spreadsheet this morning, I watched the Blue Jays vault from a close second-place finish behind the Yankees in the AL East to a favorite to win both the division and the pennant.

This piece, though, is not an analysis of the moves. It’s a lamentation — of one of them, anyway.

I love the Royals’ decision to sign Greinke. The baseball reasons for it are obvious — he’s a great pitcher, past his prime, but still viable. As one of the game’s smartest hurlers, he can be a prime mentor to a talented but unproven group of Kansas City starting pitchers. But I love it even more because of the full-circle element. I love that it closes a loop opened when the Royals traded Greinke more than a decade ago. I love it because it celebrates an ineffable connection — there’s no real term for it, so I’ll call it player-team identity.

It’s the same factor that explains why I could not possibly hate the fact that Freeman’s time in Atlanta has ended more than I do. I hate it as much as any move that’s happened in baseball in a long time. It feels irrational, how much I hate it, yet I don’t think it’s entirely irrational.

Let’s go back to 2002 — when the Royals picked Greinke in the first round of the MLB Draft. He was the sixth pick that year, taken just after Clint Everts (by the Expos, though he never played in the majors) and just before Prince Fielder, who had an excellent career but has been retired since 2016. It’s been a long time.

If you have a drinking game based on how often I mention that I grew up a Royals fan, it’s time to take a sip: I grew up a Royals fan. And I can tell you just how hopeless it felt to be a Royals fan at that time. The year that Greinke was drafted, the Royals finished fourth, one of the bottom two teams in the AL Central for the sixth time in seven years. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 1985.

Because of that almost nihilistic level of despair, fans pinned the fate of the franchise on Greinke developing into a star. It seems so naive looking back on it. Greinke became every bit as good as anyone could have hoped, and he reached that level while still in a Royals uniform. But the organization was in such a state of disrepair, and Greinke could only do so much for the first seven years of his career, the team remained one of the worst-two teams in the Central.

In the end, Greinke did play a huge role in helping the Royals win a championship. In December of 2010, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi. When the Royals won back-to-back pennants in 2014 and 2015, Cain and Escobar were starters and key components — as were Wade Davis and James Shields, who came to Kansas City in a deal for Odorizzi.

If you conducted a poll, you’d probably find that about zero percent of the base regrets the Greinke trade. Yes, he was one of baseball’s best pitchers at the time and, 12 years later, is still rolling. But the Royals were trying to overcome a quarter century of futility, and that’s what mattered, above all else.

The career that Greinke had — 219 career wins, 2,809 total strikeouts, 68.0 bWAR — would be the best ever by a Royals player. But it’s impossible to say if he would have put up such numbers if he’d stayed — and it’s impossible to imagine that he could have earned $34 million or more in a season, as he has over the last several years, in Kansas City.

Still, it’s hard not to dream about what it would have looked like if Greinke had been a Royal all along. If the Royals had been better during Greinke’s younger days, maybe he could have been the kind of player who became fused with the identity of the team, for better and for worse. Greinke would be to Royals pitching what George Brett is to Royals hitting.

Ah, George Brett. Don’t tell me you didn’t know this was coming.

In 1977, growing up as a budding Royals fan in the rural Midwest, I had a poster of George Brett on my bedroom wall. I was a Brett fan as a boy playing in little league. I was a Brett fan all through adolescence, high school and college, too. In 1993, the last season of Brett’s storybook career, I was 24 years old, watching Brett kiss home plate on the night of his final game, wondering where all the time went.

And I’ve met countless others with the same story — fans who played third base in little league because George Brett played third base, who, because of Brett, stuck with the Royals even though it would have been so easy to move on from them. Surely many Royals fans were thrilled to find out Wednesday that Greinke was returning after a long absence, coming home — to them, at least, exactly where he belongs.

Not every player gets that chance. And of course, there aren’t many George Bretts, just like there aren’t many Cal Ripkens nor Derek Jeters nor Robin Younts nor Mike Trouts. If you have rooted for a player like that, count yourself lucky.

The Braves had such a player. His name was Freddie Freeman. He was drafted by the Braves in 2007. One of his teammates and mentors was Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, a link that created a direct line to the dynastic Braves teams of the 1990s and 2000s.

Freeman was part of two playoff teams before the Braves decided to tear down starting in 2014, trading away most veterans of value — but not him. Instead, the Braves signed Freeman to an eight-year contract that just expired after last season. Why did they hold on to Freeman?

Because they wanted someone who could be a constant for the fan base, a reminder that the organization was in a tough stretch but was earnestly trying to build towards something better, someone who could provide continuity as the team moved to a new venue and who was an ideal candidate to be a mentor for younger Braves players as the system began to produce them.

In other words, the Braves recognized the value of having a player who not only helped on the field — but also gave the franchise an identity. They were willing to pay big for that player.

Freeman gave them all that and more, and in the process, he became an institution in Georgia baseball. Finally, last season, everything came together with the title and the parade and the ring ceremony to come. Except Freeman won’t be there for the ring ceremony.

I hate it. I hate, hate, hate it. I hate it even knowing that in my own model for surplus value that the Braves came out just fine on the sequence of events. Olson is a terrific player, younger than Freeman, and an Atlanta-area native to boot. For all I know, he’ll be the most popular thing in Georgia since Coca-Cola.

Maybe he already is: After an unscientific tour of social media and message boards, I gleaned that a lot of Braves fans were totally on board with the change. So much of the response I saw had the same actuarial slant to it, as if Braves fans themselves were the ones writing the checks: Freeman doesn’t deserve a sixth year. Olson is younger and more likely to provide surplus value on a long-term deal. Just look at the Tigers and Miguel Cabrera. Etc., etc., etc.

It’s impossible for me to know how representative these comments are — of course there are plenty of Atlantans who are none too pleased to see Freeman depart — but there were enough of them to send me into a minor depression. Is that really the only lens through which we’ve come to view the game? As if we were all CPAs hired to keep track of the spending of billionaires?

I just can’t shake the feeling that this is a terrible outcome for baseball. To be sure, teams do need to properly value players. Baseball franchises have a lot of resources, but the resources aren’t unlimited and for some clubs, money spent in a luxury tax structure is money that can’t be spent in other ways.

All that is fine. But how about if teams make this simple calculation: That some players have an almost unquantifiable value to certain teams, and that value has a real, observable impact on the long-term allure of that franchise.

Sometimes a player comes along who transcends all logic, who in a just universe will wear the same uniform his entire career and become one of the rarest things in baseball — a one-team Hall of Famer and a cornerstone on which everything else rests. If you are a fan of a team when a player like that has appeared, it gets into your bones, the way Brett did in mine — you will never not be a fan of that player, or that team.

How much is that “worth”? I can’t answer that question. I don’t know what that connection means in terms of economic value, and I’m not sure I would want to. But I strongly feel that this is something that ought to matter a lot more in baseball than it seems to, at least among those who own teams.

With Freeman searching for a new home on the same day Greinke returns to his old one, both sides of this coin are on display. Maybe the Royals could have coughed up stupid money to keep Greinke around, just so he could be the undisputed best pitcher in team history. But not only would it not have made sense 12 years ago, such a decision might have cost the franchise its second-best stretch of success in history — including possibly a World Series title.

However, while Olson might provide more production over the length of a six-, seven- or eight-year deal than Freeman, and also more surplus value, with the Braves that feels like less of a consideration. They are already good. They have some of their top young talent locked up to team-friendly deals, and they are one of the few teams with public documentation of how profitable they are. Those profits were earned, in part, because of the presence of Freeman. The fact that Freeman is no longer a Brave just feels so … corporate. It’s not a great outcome for the sport.

Maybe, like Greinke, Freeman will someday return to the Braves to finish his career. It’ll be a nice story when and if it happens. But for me, it’s a story that feels like it should never have needed to be told.

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Author: Shirley