Pull up a chair. We need to talk about Braves and Freddie Freeman

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos (left) and manager Brian Snitker celebrate the Braves' 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers to advance to the World Series. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos (left) and manager Brian Snitker celebrate the Braves' 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers to advance to the World Series. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

It’s easy to say, “Give Freddie Freeman what he wants.” He has been the Braves’ second-best position player of the 21st century. (The best became a first-ballot Hall of Famer.) Freeman just helped deliver a giddy-beyond-belief World Series triumph. Nobody has an unkind word to say about the man. Would it be wrong for Alex Anthopoulos to offer a blank check and say, “Fill in the amount”?

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We’re about to enter the third month of MLB’s lockout. Teams cannot conduct business. Teams have been ordered to say nothing. This doesn’t mean some in the back of the classroom won’t pass messages when the commissioner’s not looking. Buster Olney of ESPN reported this week: “There is a growing belief that Freeman will land somewhere outside of Atlanta.” That presumably means outside of Cobb County as well.

Because Freeman is among the biggest remaining free agents and because the Braves just won the World Series, he’s the subject of much speculation. This doesn’t mean anything has changed since midnight Dec. 2, the moment the lockout was imposed. Nothing CAN change.

In the absence of breaking news, I offer two snippets of Braves history. The first is from December 2002. I believed the only way Tom Glavine would leave was if the Braves made him mad. That’s what happened. Dialogue between the great pitcher and John Schuerholz turned testy. Glavine said the heck with this, agreeing to sign with the – ugh! – Mets. Had he taken a day to simmer down, he might have stayed. But we’re all human beings. We all have egos.

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I yield to no one in my respect for Schuerholz, the greatest of all general managers. That said, I cannot imagine Anthopoulos, the current GM, allowing matters to become heated with Freeman. Over AA’s four-plus years on the job, only one free agent whom the Braves wanted to keep has left – Josh Donaldson in January 2020.

After Donaldson signed with Minnesota, Anthopoulos went to great lengths to express his esteem for Donaldson and his representation. The Braves didn’t lose Donaldson because they were outflanked at the bargaining table. The Bringer of Rain didn’t stomp off in a huff. He left because the Twins offered the 34-year-old a four-year contract. The Braves were unwilling to go beyond three.

Said Anthopoulos: “We were given every opportunity to sign him. His agent was fantastic throughout the process. … Ultimately, we went as far as we thought made sense for us, and it was less than what the Twins offered. I don’t blame him for a minute. It’s a fantastic contract for him. He earned it. Would’ve loved to have him stay a Brave, but we ultimately had to make a decision. We felt like it was best for our club to go to a number and not go beyond that to get it done.”

Donaldson is 36. In neither of his two Minnesota seasons – the first shortened by injury and COVID-19 – has he been as good as he was in 2019 as a Brave. The Twins still owe him $53.5 million. We on the outside focus on money. In the industry, the bigger concerns regard age and years under contract.

To flesh out the Donaldson-less batting order, Anthopoulos signed Marcell Ozuna for one year at $18 million. Ozuna led the National League in homers and RBIs. Ozuna then re-upped for $64 million over four seasons. Why give him a fourth year but not Donaldson? Because Ozuna was 30, not 34. The dynamics change when a player hits 35.

Freeman is 32. It’s believed the Braves have offered $135 million over five seasons. That’s an annual asset value of $27 million. The Mets signed Max Scherzer, who’s 37 and who works every fifth day, for three years at an AAV of $43.3 million. (Here’s where I say, “That’s why they’re the Mets.”)

Money spent on one player is, in the case of non-Dodgers clubs, money that can’t be spent on someone else. Money spent on players on the high side of 35 is usually – exceptions exist – not spent wisely. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies are working under long-term deals. Soon the club will need to pay big to keep Max Fried, Austin Riley, Ian Anderson, Dansby Swanson and, assuming he can stay healthy, Mike Soroka.

Paying Freeman $27M, or even $30M, is fine for 2022 and 2023. A sixth year would take him to 2027, when he’ll turn 38. Over the past five seasons, the once-great Miguel Cabrera has an aggregate FanGraphs WAR of minus-0.2. He’s 38. The Tigers still owe him $64M. A prudent contract cannot be awarded as a thank-you for what happened. Contracts must reflect a team’s best estimate of what’s apt to happen next.

In his ZiPS projections, Dan Szymborski estimates Freeman will be worth 4.0 in fWAR in 2022. That’s still very good. It’s the 33rd-highest among position players. But Oakland, which always is looking to trade guys before they get pricy, has a first baseman named Matt Olson. He’s projected to have an fWAR of 4.8. He’ll turn 28 next month.

When it comes to Plan Bs, Anthopoulos is top-class. We recall his whole new outfield of 2021. We recall how long it took to find a replacement bat after Donaldson chose Minnesota. Within a week, Ozuna was a Brave. In four seasons under this GM, the Braves have finished first, first, first and first.

If Freeman leaves, it will be a massive disappointment. It will not wreck an ascendant franchise. I’m confident the Braves will have a competent first baseman in 2022. I have faith in Alex Anthopoulos.