There’s no way Freddie Freeman leaves the Braves. Is there?

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The good thing about being a good team is that you’re, ahem, a good team. The bad thing is that staying good costs. In 2018, Alex Anthopoulos’ first season as general manager here, the Braves ranked 21st among MLB clubs in payroll. They won the National League East that season, which prompted the big-ticket (albeit short-term) signings of Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel for 2019. That bumped them up to 15th.

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They won the East again. Anthopoulos refused to meet the Twins’ price for Donaldson – more about this in a moment – but landed Marcell Ozuna and Cole Hamels with, once again, one-year offers. Ozuna led the NL in RBIs over the pandemic-shortened season; Hamels worked 3-1/3 innings. Win some, lose some. With the 16th-highest prorated payroll, the 2020 Braves came within a game of the World Series.

Spotrac calculates the Braves’ 2021 payroll at $141 million, 14th-highest in the majors, but well above the $121 million of 2018. Yet again, Anthopoulos sought to avoid long-term commitments, signing pitchers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to one-year deals totaling $26 million. At age 30, Ozuna was re-upped for $65 million over four seasons. He’s on the injured list with broken fingers; at the same time, he’s under investigation by MLB after being arrested on charges of domestic violence.

As of the All-Star break, the Braves have had their worst season under Anthopoulos. They’re a game under .500; they’re also only four games behind the division-leading Mets. They’re still owned by the Colorado-based conglomerate Liberty Media, which has, by Liberty Media standards, allowed Anthopoulos to spend more, though spending more isn’t quite splurging. The Dodgers’ payroll exceeds the Braves’ by $109 million; the Mets’ payroll is $50 million more than Atlanta’s.

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Very soon, Anthopoulos will face even bigger, cosmically and monetarily, decisions than he has had to make since taking the job in November 2017. Freddie Freeman’s contract -- $135 million over eight seasons – lapses at season’s end. The Braves don’t want to let Freeman, the face of the franchise and the reigning NL MVP, leave. And yet: He turns 32 in September and, by his exalted standards, this has been his worst season (going by OPS) since 2015.

Freeman is making $22 million this season. That doesn’t put him among MLB’s 20 highest-paid players. Freeman has said he wants to be a Brave for life, but how far can a hometown discount go? (Also up for discussion, although the answer is surely unknowable: Has the uncertainty over his future affected Freeman’s performance? He told the AJC at the All-Star game: “I wish something had been done.”)

In November 2019, Anthopoulos signed catcher Travis d’Arnaud for two years at $8 million each. In what passed for the 2020 season, d’Arnaud batted cleanup and won a Silver Slugger award. The follow-up has been less fulfilling. He hurt his thumb in May. He’s set to return in August. His batting average has dipped 101 percentage points year over year. He’s 32. He’ll become a free agent in November.

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Credit: AP

Credit: AP

There’s no arguing with facts: In Anthopoulos’ first three years, his Braves finished first, first and first. Another fact: Good young teams tend to grow into good older teams, which means they keep winning but cost more. The 2019 contract extensions of Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies – totaling an aggregate $135 million over 15 seasons – bought much wiggle room. (In February, Fernando Tatis of San Diego signed a 14-year deal for $340 million.) Still, the Braves knew other contracts would be less team-friendly.

As we speak, the Braves cannot be sure they’ll have Freeman, d’Arnaud, Morton or Smyly on opening day 2022. Ozuna’s status is uncertain. Dansby Swanson is set to become a free agent after next season. Max Fried is arbitration-eligible. So is Chris Martin, who’s 35. Mike Soroka has worked 13-2/3 big-league innings since October 2019. There’s still young talent here: Austin Riley, Ian Anderson, Huascar Ynoa, Kyle Muller, Kyle Wright, Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Shea Langeliers. Lest we forget: Albies is 24, Acuna 23. This isn’t an organization apt to implode anytime soon.

The reason Anthopolous didn’t pay $90-some million to keep Donaldson was because, at 34, he was a good player but a bad investment. The reason for the annual parade of one-year deals is that, even with a worst-case scenario (i.e., Hamels), those sunk costs don’t linger. That said, this administration hasn’t faced an issue like Freeman. There’s no way the Braves can lose him. If memory serves, we once said the same of Tom Glavine, who wound up pitching for – ugh – the Mets.