Freeman contract largest in Braves history

First baseman Freddie Freeman, who broke into the major leagues in 2010, reached a reported 8-year deal for $125 million - about $15.5 million a year. Freeman hit .319 with 23 home runs, 109 RBIs and 89 runs scored in 147 games in 2013, making the NL All-Star team for the first time.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

First baseman Freddie Freeman, who broke into the major leagues in 2010, reached a reported 8-year deal for $125 million - about $15.5 million a year. Freeman hit .319 with 23 home runs, 109 RBIs and 89 runs scored in 147 games in 2013, making the NL All-Star team for the first time.

One week after his pal Chipper Jones rescued him from a snowstorm, first baseman Freddie Freeman reaped a blizzard of cash with a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract that surpassed what the Braves once paid Chipper.

The Braves and their All-Star first baseman finalized the deal Tuesday, a week before a scheduled arbitration hearing.

Freeman’s contract extension buys out all three of his arbitration years as well as five free-agent years, and far surpassed the previous franchise-record deal — a six-year, $90 million extension that Jones signed before the 2001 season.

“Freddie has established himself as one of the best young talents in the game,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “We are excited to sign one of our own homegrown players to a contract that will keep him in a Braves uniform for the next eight seasons.”

Earlier Tuesday, the Braves also signed right fielder Jason Heyward to a two-year, $13.3 million contract, buying out his last two arbitration years before free agency.

Freeman gets a $2.875 million signing bonus, then salaries of $5.125 million in 2014, $8.5 million in 2015 and $12 million in 2016. The salary jumps to $20.5 million in 2017, then $21 million in 2018 and 2019, and $22 million in the last two years of the deal, 2020 and 2021.

The salary increase comes in what would’ve been his free-agent years, and coincides with the Braves’ planned move into a new Cobb County ballpark in 2017, where they expect to have significantly increased revenues.

Freeman is coming off a breakthrough performance in his third season. He ranked fifth in the National League MVP balloting after batting .319 with a .396 on-base percentage, 23 homers and 109 RBIs, the Braves’ first 100-RBI man since Jones and Jeff Francoeur in 2007.

The 6-foot-5 California native turned 24 in September.

On Jan. 28, Jones drove his all-terrain vehicle an estimated 10 miles through the metro Atlanta suburbs to pick up Freeman, who was among thousands of drivers stranded in traffic for hours on area highways after a winter storm paralyzed the area.

When salary-arbitration figures were swapped between major league teams and unsigned arbitration-eligible players Jan. 17, Freeman asked for $5.75 million, and the Braves proposed $4.5 million. He was scheduled for a Feb. 11 arbitration hearing, where a three-person panel would have decided which of those two salaries would be his pay for 2014.

Braves general manager Frank Wren said he didn’t relent on the team’s “file and trial” stance that eschews negotiations with players after the salary-exchange date. Rather, he said that strategy applied to one-year contracts and never precluded the team from discussing multiyear deals with the three who were unsigned — Freeman, Heyward and Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel remains unsigned and is scheduled for a Feb. 17 hearing.

Freeman has hit more than 20 homers in each of his three seasons. His .443 average with runners in scoring position was the second-highest in the majors last season behind the Cardinals’ Allen Craig (.454), and his 1.236 OPS in those situations was second to the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera (1.311).

Also a fine defensive player, Freeman made $560,000 last season and became eligible for arbitration this winter.

A few years ago, it was assumed that Heyward, not Freeman, was the Brave most likely to get a nine-figure deal someday.

Freeman was a second-round pick in the 2007 draft out of El Modena High School in Orange, Calif. Heyward was the Braves’ first-round pick that year out of Henry County High, and the two prospects became close friends as minor league teammates for three seasons through 2009.

Heyward had a spectacular 2009 minor league season and won a starting job with the big-league Braves at 2010 spring training. After electrifying Turner Field with an opening-day homer and making the All-Star team as a rookie, Heyward was unofficial heir apparent to Jones as Face of the Franchise and next great Braves position player.

But in the past three seasons, Heyward has been inconsistent and seen his career trajectory stall at times — in part because of injuries — while Freeman has been the Braves’ steadiest hitter since his rookie season in 2011.

Freeman has a .285 career average with a .358 OBP and a .466 slugging percentage in 1,908 plate appearances, with 93 doubles, 68 homers and 280 RBIs, including 203 in the past two seasons. Heyward, a month older than Freeman, has hit .259 with a .352 OBP and a .443 slugging in 2,170 at-bats, with 99 doubles, 73 homers and 234 RBIs in four seasons.

Heyward’s new deal includes salaries of $4.5 million in 2014 and $7.8 million in 2015, plus a $1 million signing bonus.

Before Tuesday, the last young Brave signed to a long-term extension was catcher Brian McCann. At spring training in 2007, McCann, entering his second full season, signed a six-year, $27.8 million extension that included a $12 million club option for 2013. He triggered several performance-escalator clauses and ended up maxing out the deal at $41.8 million over seven seasons, before leaving as a free agent this winter and getting a five-year, $85 million deal with the Yankees.

Freeman’s contract has an average annual value of $16.875 million, topping the $15.05 million average of the five-year, $75.25 million deal center fielder B.J. Upton signed last winter, the largest free-agent contract in franchise history.