The Atlanta Braves have chosen the next face of the franchise following the 2012 retirement of Chipper Jones – and it's 24-year old first baseman Freddie Freeman. Atlanta agreed to a mammoth eight-year, $135 million contract with Freeman that will keep him a Brave through 2021, when he will be just 32-years old. Freeman's contract is the largest in team history (dwarfing Jones' six-year, $90 million contract signed in August of 2000), and also the largest in baseball for any player with less than four years of service time.
Freeman's contract comes on the same day that Atlanta signed Jason Heyward to a two-year, $13.3 million deal, buying out his final two years of arbitration and seemingly suggesting that Heyward will test the free agent market after the 2015 season. I wouldn't necessarily proclaim that Heyward is surely leaving Atlanta, though – after 2015, the only contracts Atlanta has on the books are those belonging to Freeman and B.J. Upton. Dan Uggla's albatross has just two years left, as does Justin Upton's pact with the Braves. Those three contracts (both Uptons and Uggla) were the main constraint on Atlanta's payroll that made them have a relatively inactive offseason – until now, that is.
Of course, when dealing with an earth-shattering contract like this, the issue of value becomes an issue. Is Freddie Freeman worth eight years and $135 million to the Braves?
To determine that, we need to figure out just what Freddie Freeman is worth. In 2013, he hit .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs. That seems pretty good, but isn't first base a position where players rake? Well…sort of. Last year, the league average first baseman did hit 24 homers, more than Freeman's 23. But first baseman as a whole hit just .261/.336/.436, a stat line that is absolutely dwarfed by Freeman's 2013 numbers.
The top tier of first basemen isn't what it once was, with Prince Fielder beginning to struggle, Albert Pujols falling apart in Anaheim, and Adrian Gonzalez losing his way. The top tier of first baseman right now consists of Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Chris Davis, and Paul Goldschmidt. Freeman is part of that second tier with those players that have fallen out of the first tier and other guys like Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Belt, Mike Napoli, and Allen Craig. Freeman is younger than all of them aside from Hosmer (who is only a month younger), meaning that there's a reasonable chance he could propel himself further up the food chain and into the top tier of first basemen in baseball.
But gee, $135 million…that's a lot of money! Yes, it is – but context is important. Pujols got $240 million going into his age 32 season. Votto got $225 million on a contract that will take effect for his age 31 season. Fielder got $214 million heading into his age 28 season, and it only took the Tigers nine years to dump it on the Rangers. Cabrera got $152.5 million way back before his age 25 season, but will be getting *another* payday sometime over the next two years. When you look at the contracts for those other first basemen, doesn't $135 million for a 24-year old look downright reasonable?
It's not as if there isn't any risk in Freeman's contract, or any large contract for that matter. Ryan Howard's five-year, $125 million deal with the Phillies has been a legendary disaster. Mark Teixeira's eight-year, $180 million pact with the Yankees has been a disappointment. Todd Helton ran out of steam during his $157.5 million contract with Colorado. A concussion derailed Justin Morneau's $80 million agreement with the Twins. But none of those players were as young as Freeman, and thus, the breakdown in abilities (with the exception of Morneau's unfortunate injury) was expected.
In 2007, the Braves offered identical contract extensions to a pair of 23-year old budding stars. One of the players accepted, and one declined. The player who declined, Jeff Francoeur, would be traded out of Atlanta in 2009, and never quite realized his potential. The player who accepted, Brian McCann, stayed in Atlanta for seven seasons after signing his extension, making six All-Star teams and winning four Silver Slugger awards. The same thing could happen this time around – Heyward could go on to have a mediocre career after leaving Atlanta, while Freeman could go on to be a multi-time All-Star and one of the most popular players in Braves history. Or maybe, Freeman will end up being the mediocre one while Heyward's star blossoms with another team.
Whatever ends up happening, you can't blame the Braves for making a poor investment. Freeman isn't a player with obvious flaws like Francoeur was. He's not a player that's on the wrong side of 30 like Pujols was. He's not a player that has missed substantial periods of time with injuries over his career. If this contract ends up biting the Braves in the ass, it won't be because of something they could have foretold. And because of that, I really can't find any fault with Atlanta for inking Freeman to this long-term extension.