The Braves would have a pretty good team without Freeman because of their core of young players. Outfielder Ronald Acuna, who is under contractual control through 2028, has surpassed Freeman as the team’s best hitter. Second baseman Ozzie Albies (2027) is an All-Star. Third baseman Austin Riley (2025) just finished seventh in MVP voting. The World Series rotation included Max Fried (2024) and Ian Anderson (2026).
The Braves are built for long-term success. In the short term, they need Freeman.
Forget the sentiment about Freeman being the face of the franchise. That’s worth something, but the bigger impact of his departure would be that the Braves aren’t World Series contenders without him. They likely wouldn’t find a comparable player to replace him unless they spent about what it costs to keep him, which wouldn’t make sense.
Freeman obviously is the priority free agent for the Braves. He’s not the only significant one. Three of the four outfielders who arrived via trade to transform the team are on the market: Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario and Joc Pederson. Adam Duvall, who is arbitration-eligible, could be if the Braves don’t tender him a contract offer. Acuna’s return in 2022 means the Braves will have two holes to fill in the outfield.
Prospect Cristian Pache hasn’t shown he’s up to it. Marcell Ozuna might return after serving a suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy. If he’s traded, the Braves would need to acquire at least two starting-quality outfielders to have a group as good as the end of 2021. Doing that while re-signing Freeman will mean significantly increasing the payroll.
Including salary-arbitration estimates, the Braves have roughly $120 million committed to their 2022 payroll. Re-signing Freeman would add about $30 million to the tally. If Ozuna stays, that’s another $16 million. That would put Braves salaries at $166 million for 2022, with one more outfielder still needed.
The team’s payroll was $153 million in 2021. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has said he can spend more. Can he spend that much more? That may be necessary to retain Freeman and have a deep outfield again in 2022.
We may need to wait a while to see if the Braves can pull it off. For their supporters, that’s obviously preferable to the nightmare scenario of Freeman signing elsewhere before Thursday. They can get a deal done after the lockout. That’s a good reason to take a deep breath if Thursday comes and Freeman is still a free agent.
Meanwhile, the worriers might be looking at what the Mets have done.
They signed right-hander Max Scherzer (three years, $130 million) to join the top of their rotation with Jacob deGrom. The Mets added Starling Marte (three years, $78 million), who’s been very good all-around outfielder for years. Infielder Eduardo Escobar ($20 million over two) joined the Mets soon after he was one of the few hitters to do much against the Braves in the NLDS.
The Mets are doing what they do, making splashy signings. New owner same as the old one. But I see New York’s splurges as no big worry for the Braves, for reasons having to do with health and history.
Scherzer is headed to the Hall of Fame one day, but he’ll turn 38 years old in July. The Dodgers scratched Scherzer from an NLCS start against the Braves because of arm fatigue. The Mets have a long history of bad injury luck for their pitchers. They just added another candidate.
The other reason the Braves shouldn’t sweat the Mets is that their rivals spend and spend yet never catch them. As the Braves won four consecutive NL East titles, the Mets were finishing third, third, fourth and third. Maybe New York’s money will work out this time. After years of believing it would, I officially abandoned that notion before last season.
Before the Mets spent big, the Braves made a few smart, low-profile acquisitions.
They got right-hander Jay Jackson in a trade with the Giants. His profile: hard thrower, lots of strikeouts, too many walks. Jackson had a 3.74 ERA in 21-1/3 innings last season. The Braves signed Kirby Yates to a two-year deal. He was one of MLB’s best relievers from 2017-19 but didn’t pitch last season after Tommy John elbow surgery.
Jackson and Yates aren’t exciting acquisitions. But they are the kind of seemingly minor deals that could pay off in important playoff moments. Anthopoulos has been very good at making solid moves on the roster’s margin. The Braves have a World Series championship to show for it.
That’s hard to do. It’s even harder to repeat. Just 14 teams have done it, none since the Yankees won three consecutive titles from 1998-2000. The Braves won’t do it without Freeman. The clock is ticking until Thursday and then maybe for much longer.