A big Braves day: Heyward placated, Freeman secured

If you were one of those who ripped the Braves for not making a big move earlier this winter, here’s a question: Is locking up Freddie Freeman for eight more seasons at $135 million big enough for you? And doing it on the same day Jason Heyward accepted $13.3 million over two seasons … was that big enough? Or did you expect Frank Wren to swing that Joey-Terdoslavich-for-Mike-Trout deal, too?

It was only the other day — heck, it was Sunday in this very publication — that we wondered how the Braves might keep their young core intact. We now have an answer.

If you’re a Braves fan, you cannot be anything but ecstatic over Tuesday’s doings, the Freeman part especially. This time last week, we weren’t sure the Braves would be willing to offer a big-ticket extension or if anyone would take it. As Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus said: “With the extensions we’re seeing that are really team-friendly, most of those are with players who are barely in big leagues. … With the Braves’ core, most of them have established themselves. (The Braves) possibly might have already missed the window of getting a good deal.”

Turns out they hadn’t. Not that $135 million over eight seasons would qualify as “a good deal” in the sense that it’s cheap. Paul Goldschmidt, like Freeman a first baseman, signed a new contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks for $32 million over five seasons last March. Goldschmidt finished second in the 2013 National MVP voting; Freeman finished fifth. If you’re the D-backs, you’re feeling pretty clever right about now. Which isn’t to say that the Braves should feel silly.

Dan Szymborski of ESPN tweeted that his ZiPS projection system indicated that Freeman could be worth $131 million over eight seasons, which is pretty close to what the Braves are paying. Whatever the cost, Freeman's contract will play well with the Braves' questioning constituency. It shows that the Braves are, contrary to raging popular belief, willing to put big money where their mouth is. Let's note that they invested nearly $200 million in Derek Lowe, Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. No, those deals didn't/haven't panned out. But that's not to say they didn't try.

Generally speaking, a team is better off splurging on a homegrown product than on someone else’s player. (Lowe and Upton were free agents; Uggla was acquired from the Marlins via trade and then given a new contract.) The Braves know Freeman — and Heyward, too — in a way that they couldn’t have known Lowe or Upton or Uggla. They drafted both. They developed both. A Braves employee has watched every professional move the two have made.

Nobody is qualified to assess these two in the way the Braves are, and it’s revealing that Freeman was given many more dollars and years. Heyward’s new deal runs through the 2015 season, after which he can file for free agency. Freeman’s contract would make him eligible for the Hall of Fame — note that I didn’t say worthy of the Hall of Fame — before he’s eligible for free agency. At this moment, the Braves regard Freeman as more essential than the guy who was considered baseball’s No. 1 prospect in 2010.

In a poll on AJC.com last week, 56.8 percent of the respondents identified Freeman as the young Brave they'd most want to keep. (Andrelton Simmons was second, Craig Kimbrel third, Heyward fourth and Julio Teheran fifth.) Once considered the Robin to Heyward's Batman, Freeman has been more consistent in three full big-league seasons than his minor-league roommate has in four. This isn't to say that Heyward hasn't been good; it is to say that Freeman is bordering on great.

When last the Braves moved so boldly to keep one of their youngsters, the year was 2007 and the player was Brian McCann, then 21 months removed from his big-league debut. He signed what would become a seven-year contract at $40 million. Much more was required to keep Freeman because he had a longer body of work, already was arbitration-eligible and because baseball salaries only fatten with time. But the McCann contract proved money well spent, and Freeman’s could, too.

It also could not. That’s the downside of pre-emptive extensions. They look awful if it turns out a young player has topped out. But the Braves have reason to believe they know what they’re getting, and nothing suggests that Freeman can’t or won’t get even better. Of all the gifted young Braves, he and Simmons stood as the two most important. One of them has been secured, at age 24, for eight more seasons. That’s a heck of a big deal.