Dansby Swanson, Freddie Freeman have advice for Max Fried entering contract year

Los Angeles Dodgers' Freddie Freeman, right, smiles at Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried after being thrown out at first during the fourth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 19, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Los Angeles Dodgers' Freddie Freeman, right, smiles at Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried after being thrown out at first during the fourth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 19, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

MESA, AZ. – Since 2021, Braves left-hander Max Fried has watched two of his friends, first baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Dansby Swanson, field questions about their contract years, thrive amid the uncertainty, then leave the team they loved in free agency.

Welcome to their world.

Fried was never included among the Braves’ barrage of extensions, something folks have learned to view as a writing-on-the-wall sign. Fried is now hoping for an excellent performance ahead of free agency. He’s now the one who will play a season knowing there’s a legitimate possibility it will be his final in Atlanta, following a similar path to his buddies who helped win that sweet 2021 championship.

Braves fans are familiar with this tune. They know the verses, the chorus, even the key change. Many have accepted that Fried seems destined to become the next beloved figure who finishes his career elsewhere.

“I think everyone’s situation is extremely different, right?” Fried told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The things that Freddie went through and Dansby went through, I think it’s different. Each individual has their own path. I think there are certain things that you can look to, but overall, I think whatever happens in my experience – which, I don’t have the crystal ball – I know what they did do was: No matter what was happening, they worked their tail off and really just made it about today. Being the best player you can and trying to win a World Series with the guys you have. That’s all I’m looking to do.”

Indeed, the previous two departures were different situations. Freeman, a likely future Hall of Famer, never wanted or intended to leave; a unique series of events (that were rehashed ad nauseam) led to him joining the Dodgers on a six-year, $162 million contract in March 2022.

In his contract year, Freeman hit .300/.393/.503 with 31 homers, 83 RBIs and scored a league-leading 120 runs. The Braves, of course, won the World Series, with Freeman homering in his final at-bat and receiving the last out in Game 6.

Fried pitched six scoreless innings in the clincher. Yet like Tom Glavine, another Braves lefty who dominated in a title-securing Game 6, Fried’s cap could feature another insignia.

“I can’t speak for him; I don’t know what’s going on,” Freeman told The AJC. “Even when I was there, I didn’t hear anything about extension talk, so I don’t know what’s gone on in the last couple years. But Max, the first time I saw him, we were in Orlando at the old (spring training) place. I said, ‘left-handed arms like that don’t come around very often.’ That is a special left arm. He’s a gamer. All he cares about is winning. No matter how he feels, he tries to go out every five days and sometimes hurries himself in the process. So obviously, I love that.

“It’s a contract year. There are a lot of guys with contract years, but the only thing I can say is go out there and have fun. Don’t worry about it.”

Swanson, an Atlanta area native, will always consider this home. His initial preference was also staying, but his situation was one more reflective of a typical free agency. He’d hit .277/.329/.447 with 25 home runs and a career-best 96 RBIs before hitting the market. Swanson signed with the Cubs in December 2022 on a seven-year, $177 million deal.

The exits worked out for everybody. Freeman is a pillar of what’s currently baseball’s most illustrious franchise. The Braves replaced him with hometown slugger Matt Olson, who last year set the franchise’s single-season homers record and has fit seamlessly.

While the Cubs missed the postseason – partly due to a sweep at Truist Park during the season’s final week – Swanson is considered an organizational tone setter who’s helping build a foundation. The team is encouraged by its young talent and just hired acclaimed manager Craig Counsell. The Braves replaced Swanson with Orlando Arcia, who enjoyed a break-out year as the National League’s starting shortstop in last summer’s All-Star Game. The Braves have a couple promising infield prospects, too. All’s well that ends well.

But replacing Fried during a contention window would be a seismic challenge. He’s an All-Star who’s twice finished among the top five in Cy Young voting. He’s had an ERA of 3.04 or lower in four consecutive years. He’s also an important presence in the clubhouse. Fried represents the Braves extremely well across the landscape – as his old teammates did – and that carries additional value.

“We’ve had conversations surrounding it all,” said Swanson, who remains close with Fried and spent time with him in Atlanta during the offseason (and had Fried as a guest on ‘The Express Podcast’ last month). “I think, obviously, he plays his cards very close to his chest, which I love and appreciate about him. So I’m not going to get into his perspective that he’s shared or hasn’t shared. I’m not going to guess or anything like that. I just know he’s smart and he very much knows who he is and what he wants to do.”

The Braves have Spencer Strider to top their rotation in Fried’s absence, but the latter’s elite consistency is scarce. That’s why, if he’s healthy, he’ll receive the appropriate compensation this winter. Teams are starved for frontline pitching. Aside from perhaps the Orioles’ Corbin Burnes, Fried could be the best starter on the market.

And yes, speculatively speaking, the Dodgers and Cubs would be potential suitors for the Santa Monica, California native. But it’s easy to envision any willing-to-spend club pursuing him.

“You know Max, he’s smart,” Swanson said. “He’s got his stuff together and he’s got his stuff where he wants it. Max’s biggest thing is just if he stays healthy. That’s literally the only question mark ever that I’d say would surround him. It’d just be like, oh is there a blister here or there – last year, he just kind of got bit by the bug, which stinks. But if he’s healthy, he’s one of the best in the game. I’ve said that for a long time and continue to stand by that.”

Freeman: “(Arms like his) don’t come around. Being his teammate, then standing in the box against him, you just totally understand, ‘This is not fun to be 60 feet and 6 inches away from this.’ … It feels like he can do whatever he wants with the baseball. He’s been doing it at a high level for many, many years.

“He deserves whatever he gets. I don’t know what it’s going to be or who it’s going to be with. My only advice to him is to go focus out there and try to make 32 starts and do the best you can for the Atlanta Braves this year.”

Many insiders consider Fried’s exit a fait accompli, citing – beyond the lack of an extension – the Freeman and Swanson farewells, along with the risks of paying what will be a 31-year-old starter who’s had injuries in the past, including a forearm strain in 2023, and has only once surpassed 180 innings in a season. The AJC previously reported the Braves last discussed an extension with Fried prior to the 2023 season.

At this point, it’s worth Fried’s time to explore his options. With around $30 million in career earnings prior to 2024, Fried logically will want compensation closer to market value on his new deal (he’ll make $15 million this season). CAA Sports could justify asking for $30 million annually on his next contract if Fried’s 2024 campaign goes accordingly. The Yankees signed 30-year-old southpaw Carlos Rodon for six years, $162 million ($27 million annually) in December 2022, and his resume falls short of Fried’s.

The Braves boast a large payroll mostly due to extending in-house talent, but they aren’t known for paying individual premiums, instead spreading their wealth. None of their extensions under president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos have exceeded $22 million in average annual value. The franchise also has never signed a pitcher to a $100 million deal; a healthy Fried is certain to command such.

“I know he loves the Braves,” Freeman said. “You can’t really focus on contract stuff. And I don’t think it’s going to bother him at all because all he cares about is winning championships. That’s just who Max Fried is. My advice would be to not even think about it. It’s extremely hard not to think about it, especially since I’m sure he wants to stay and do all that. I’m sure he wishes it was handled. But at this point, now you just have to go out and play.

“My advice would be just to push it off to the side and be Max Fried. Go out there and play well and things will happen how they’re supposed to happen in life.”

Fried and the Braves know the topic will hover in the background of their season. Both sides will say minimal. There won’t be a resolution until the winter (barring a surprising turn of events).

“Anytime you have a great player in a free-agent year, it’s going to be a topic,” Anthopoulos said at spring training’s outset. “But again, our goal is always going to be to keep these guys while also making sure that we’re keeping a competitive club around them. And that’s the trick to it, trying to balance it out.”

Maybe, somehow, it gets worked out. Perhaps Fried spends his career with the Braves. But history suggests that’d be an upset. Regardless, Fried won’t be concerned. He knows what he needs to achieve in 2024. He’s striving for his best season yet, then he’ll get his best deal yet.

Whether that’s here or elsewhere, time will tell.