A lot can happen in eight years. Consider the Atlanta Braves. In the eight years before Freddie Freeman arrived in 2011, six different men handled primary duties at first base for Atlanta, from Adam LaRoche, Mark Teixeira and Troy Glaus to Casey Kotchman, Scott Thorman and Robert Fick, the Braves have seen widespread turnover at the first base position over the past decade.
Such turnover is rare from the Braves organization, which is a club built on continuity from team president John Schuerholz (with the team since he was hired as general manager in 1990) on down the line. Last week, the Braves signed Freeman, now a three-year veteran, to an eight-year, $135 million extension, the longest and richest in club history. Uncertainty at first base no more.
Nobody should be surprised that the Braves were willing and eager to spend to keep Freeman around. After merely decent contributions in his first two years in the majors, Freeman broke out in 2013, hitting .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs en route to his first All-Star appearance. Freeman's 144 OPS+ made him just the 71st player to cross the 140 OPS+ mark at age 23 or younger, and just the second for the Braves since they moved to Atlanta (Dusty Baker, 1972).
But is this the kind of star power worthy of an eight-year commitment? Consider the list of names Freeman is joining, and what they had accomplished when they signed on the dotted line:
|Player||Contract Years||Accomplishments At Signing|
|Joey Votto||10||1x MVP | 2x All-Star | 1x GG|
|Troy Tulowitzki||10||1x All-Star | 2x top-5 MVP|
|Derek Jeter||10||3x All-Star | 1x top-5 MVP|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||9||10x All-Star | 1x MVP | 5x top-5 MVP | 9x GG | 7x SS|
|Dustin Pedroia||8||3x All-Star | 1x MVP | 2x GG | 1x SS|
|Elvis Andrus||8||2x All-Star|
|Buster Posey||8||1x MVP | 1x All-Star | 1x SS|
|David Wright||8||6x All-Star | 1x top-5 MVP | 2x GG | 2x SS|
|Ryan Zimmerman||8||1x All-Star | 1x GG | 2x SS|
|Matt Kemp||8||1x All-Star | 1x top-5 MVP | 2x GG | 2x SS|
|Joe Mauer||8||1x MVP | 3x All-Star | 2x top-5 MVP | 2x GG | 3x SS|
|Ryan Braun||8||1x All-Star | 1x top-5 MVP | 1x SS|
|Miguel Cabrera||8||4x All-Star | 2x top-5 MVP | 2x SS|
|Scott Rolen||8||1x All-Star | 4x GG | 1x SS|
Freeman's youth made reaching such heights as Griffey or Pedroia or Wright impossible, but it also shows how reluctant teams have been in the past to commit to such young players coming off just one transcendent year.
The best comparison to Freeman on the above list is Todd Helton, another first baseman who broke out in his third full year in the majors. The path to becoming a star at first base is through power, and in his breakout season Helton set a then-career high with 42 home runs and posted an isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .326, nearly double the league average. Freeman hasn't shown anywhere near that level of power in the majors -- his 23 home runs in 2013 were a repeat of his 2012 career high, and his .181 isolated power ranked behind 13 other first basemen with at least 500 plate appearances.
Obviously, Freeman was still excellent last year despite his middling power. Freeman's line drive stroke is widely celebrated -- it is the reason he rocketed into top prospect rankings as a teenager and earned the Braves' starting first baseman job at age 21 in 2011. And it is likely the reason why he was able to post a phenomenal .371 batting average on balls in play, the highest among all qualified first basemen. But even those skilled at hitting line drives still have to hit 'em where they ain't, and it would be a minor miracle if Freeman was able to match that .371 mark again in 2014.
As such, projection systems across the board see at least a slight decline in the works for Freeman next year:
|Freeman 2014 ZiPS||0.286||0.365||0.477|
|Freeman 2014 PECOTA||0.279||0.349||0.456|
|Freeman 2014 Steamer||0.293||0.375||0.505|
|Freeman 2014 Oliver||0.305||0.383||0.496|
The Freeman these projections systems see, even the relatively pessimistic PECOTA, is still a fine, above-average young player. But previously, with the exception of Elvis Andrus, the eight-year extension man had been the sure thing, the established superstar, and it's hard to say Freeman lives up to that standard at this point in his young career. He's young, and some scouts believe he will be able to add strength and turn doubles into home runs as he adds muscle to his frame. But the eight-year contract has typically been reserved for the player already at that level, not a player who has yet to answer "what if?" type questions.
Consider a pair of seven-year contract extensions agreed to before the 2013 season by the Cubs with would-be young stars Anthony Rizzo ($41 million) and Starlin Castro ($60 million). Although neither had posted a season like Freeman's 2013, both were exciting young players with all the potential in the world, and committing for seven years was seen as buying in when there was nowhere to go but up. And then the 2013 season actually happened, and both players had horrendous years. Castro hit an astoundingly poor .245/.284/.347 and finished below replacement level, and Rizzo finished at .233/.323/.419 and had the 20th-worst OPS of 25 first basemen to qualify for the batting title.
This is the risk with Freeman: he falls back to the level he was at in 2011 and 2012 -- good, but hardly $135 million good -- and the Braves are stuck paying him for nearly a decade. The inherent risk of the long-term deal thus demands a reliable player on the receiving end. The Braves obviously believe Freeman can be that reliable player, and their scouts have been right often enough since Schuerholz remade the organization in his image that it's difficult to doubt them. But that said, Freeman's career to date doesn't seem one that would have commanded such a rich eight-year deal in previous years.
The league is changing, however, and Freeman may be the first in a new wave of rich extension candidates. TV money is pouring into coffers across the league, but the talent on the free agent market isn't there this year, and next year's market projects to be even worse. Braves general manager Frank Wren also acknowledged the club's upcoming new stadium and the projected revenue increases associated with it. The market, thus, is bound to heat up for young players like Freeman. Teams like Atlanta will be looking to lock those players down at reasonable rates before they can increase their contract demands with careers like those of the Pedroias, Wrights and Jeters of the previous list.
Baseball analysts have enough trouble projecting just one year into the future, much less eight, and that's why such megadeals as Freddie Freeman's are so rare. It takes a tremendous amount of confidence in a player to make that kind of commitment, confidence that typically takes years to build up. Freeman built up that confidence in Braves brass before he even turned 25, and perhaps that's the biggest reason of all to believe the club's risk will wind up paying off.