Freeman gets the sixth year he wanted—from the Dodgers

Freddie Freeman

Freddie Freeman, crossing the plate after hitting what proved last fall’s NLDS-winning home run gainst Josh Hader and the Brewers. The Dodgers now give him what the Braves wouldn’t.

Freddie Freeman got what he wanted most . . . from the Dodgers. A sixth year on his next contract. The dollars are nothing to dismiss at $162 million total and $27 million annual value. And Freeman now has the pleasure of playing for the team stationed about an hour away from where he grew up in southern California.

The Dodgers weren’t the only team in play for Freeman if the Braves inexplicably and falsely decided they couldn’t afford to give him the sixth year he wanted. The Padres had eyes for him. So did the Blue Jays. So did the Red Sox. Aside from the benefits the Red Sox would have reaped from Freeman’s hitting and leadership style, there’d have been another mad fun factor.

The Yankees re-upped Anthony Rizzo after all on a fresh deal. Rizzo and Freeman have a long-standing friendship that translates now and then to deliciously hilarious moments on the field together. Especially Rizzo, sent to pitch to Freeman while the Braves were blowing the Cubs out last April, striking Freeman out swinging on five pitches in the bottom of the seventh last April.

The laughter between the pair was priceless. In the thick of the usual Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, it would have been much needed levity if the Yankees might be blowing the Red Sox out and Red Sox manager Alex Cora could have ordered Freeman to the mound to pitch to Rizzo; and, if Freeman could have exacted friendly revenge by striking Rizzo out.

So much for fields of dreams. Right now that sound you hear is Dodger fans crowing, “We had him all the way!” From the moment Freeman hit his first free agency after his Braves won last year’s World Series, you couldn’t swing a bat without it smashing into the hind quarters of a Dodger fan believing to his or her soul that a Dodger uniform would be the next wardrobe addition for the native of Villa Park, California, just a few miles east of Anaheim.

From the same moment, though, you couldn’t swing a bat with it smashing into the hind quarters of a Braves fan praying from his or her soul that the Braves, somehow, some way, would do right by the franchise face who’d done nothing but right by them from the moment he first turned up at first base in Braves’ silks.

Then, during the owners’ lockout, when Braves owner Liberty Media’s 2021 financials were released as mandatory for a publicly-traded corporation, you saw just the Braves’ considerable 2021 revenues and very considerable 2021 profit. And you realised any talk of the Braves being “unable” to afford to make Freeman a Brave for life was a shameless lie.

This Braves ownership couldn’t bring itself to do what a previous Braves ownership did whenever Hall of Fame third baseman/former franchise face Chipper Jones came to within striking distance of free agency, get him extended or signed to a coming new deal before he could hit the market, knowing Jones’s baseball heart remained with them.

This Braves ownership preferred to spend less on an import first baseman, four years younger than Freeman, dealing for him a day before extending him eight years and $168 million worth. Matt Olson won’t earn per season what Freeman will, and he may well shake out as essentially the Braves having swapped a Freeman for a Freeman Redux. May.

But the Braves’ corporate overlords sent the message clear enough and shameful enough: The only ones in baseball expected to be loyal are the players. Just the way they always were. This isn’t purely a free agency era thing, and anyone who says otherwise either needs a refresher in baseball history or is too willfully blind to allow it.

Have a good gander at the roll of Hall of Famers whose careers were entirely or mostly in the reserve era, the era before Andy Messersmith finally finished in 1975 what Curt Flood began in 1970. Those would be players elected before 1980. There are 127 of them. Now: 89 played for two teams at minimum; fourteen played for five teams at minimum. That would leave you with (count them) 24 single-team Hall of Famers from the reserve era.

Let’s look at the Hall of Famers elected after 1980, men whose careers careened into the free agency era or who played all or most of their careers during the era. There are sixteen such single-team Hall of Famers—including Jones. The free agency era has yet to surpass the reserve era for length, so it’s fair to say that both eras sent an equivalent portion of single-team players to Cooperstown.

What Joe and Jane Fan and no few writers (who really ought to know better) still forget is that, during the reserve era, players had absolutely no say in where they played, and owners could and did trade or sell them at will, and not always for reasons that made purely baseball sense.

Fans and writers alike have broadened their view in recent times, appropriately. You could see more than the fans and writers fuming over the owners’ lockout before it was finally resolved and baseball could get back to the serious work of play.

You could see them fume over the prospect that the Braves would do exactly as they did, declaring expendable the guy who stayed the course from the lows to the competitive highs, all the way to their first World Series triumph since the Clinton Administration. If the Braves wouldn’t give Freeman the sixth year he wanted, the Dodgers were only too willing.

That’s going to be some packed Dodger lineup coming your way. With a small pack of All-Stars including five-timer Freeman. With a small pack of MVP winners, including Freeman, apparently resurgent Cody Bellinger, and Mookie Betts. With Trea (The Slider) Turner acquired at last year’s trade deadline now able to play his natural position at shortstop following Corey Seager’s free agency departure to Texas. With aging but still effective future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw re-upping for 2022 at least.

If Olson gives the Braves both solid performance on the field and at the plate, and proves to be a solid clubhouse presence, that might take some of the sting of losing Freeman away. Some. Olson knows he might “succeed” Freeman without truly “replacing” him. Returning Ronald Acuna, Jr. knows he, too, might “succeed” Freeman as the Braves’ face without truly replacing him.

But if the Dodgers tangle with the Braves in the postseason to come, the Braves may learn the hard way what their ownership’s concept of “loyalty” can cost in more ways than one. May.

Loyalty, in the eye of the beholder, still

Freddie Freeman

Freddie Freeman, hitting his 2021 World Series Game Six home run, but the face of the Braves no more. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Let’s talk about “loyalty.” But let’s do it reasonably. It never truly existed in baseball, whether during the reserve era or the free agency era. In the former, teams could trade or sell players at will and players had no choice in the matter, but in the latter a player has the right to play his job market once his contract expires.

Today’s players also have the rights to insert into their contracts lists of teams to which they’d consent to be dealt. Often enough, too, their contracts include clauses allowing them to opt out of their incumbent deals and test their markets a little earlier.

Joe and Jane Fan often still think it’s the players who’ve lost the meaning of the word “loyalty.” They need reminders that players learn or re-learn that loyalty is too often in the eye of the beholder, especially among their employers. The defending world champion Braves just handed them a beauty of a reminder.

Their franchise face since around 2011 (when he finished second to his then-teammate Craig Kimbrel as the National League’s Rookie of the Year), Freddie Freeman remains an unsigned free agent, albeit one whose heart and soul told him there was still no place like home so long as the Braves would do right by him in return for him having done so right so long by them.

The Braves elected instead to trade for another first baseman, Matt Olson, who looks a lot like Freeman on the surface and is four and a half years younger. Then, seeming to add insult to grievous injury, the Braves managed somehow to sign Olson to an eight-year, $168 million contract extension within 24 hours or so after making the deal to make him a Brave in the first place.

Throw in the four prospects the Braves sent the Athletics to make Olson Freeman’s successor, and the Braves paid a phenomenal price for deciding that even Freeman’s attachment to the team by which he’d done nothing but right over his first twelve seasons didn’t necessarily matter when it came to cold, hard business.

All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that Freeman kept the faith as the Braves went from reconstruction to contention to a return to the Promised Land at long enough last. (Until last fall, they hadn’t gotten there since the first year of Bill Clinton’s second term in the White House.)

Signing an eight-year deal to stay the course and stay a Brave, which is just what Freeman did in 2014, he kept that faith during four putrid seasons followed by four of the Braves returning to contention. The climax only began when Freeman parked a Josh Hader service in the left center field seats for what proved the game and 2021 division series win that sent them to the National League Championship Series in the first place.

It finished when Freeman delivered the final two runs of the Braves’ emphatic World Series-winning Game Six triumph in Houston, an RBI double to the back of left center field in the top of the fifth, and a home run bounding off the Phillips 66 porch above Minute Maid Park’s center field in the top of the seventh. And, when he caught the final out of the set as shortstop Dansby Swanson had to throw to first on Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel’s grounder.

“It’s a situation unlikely to repeat itself,” writes Yahoo! Sports’s Zack Crizer. “Wrack your brain all you want, and you probably won’t come up with a star who bridged a rebuild quite like Freeman. He was an established, nine-figure extension-worthy player when the Braves blew it up. And he was an established, nine-figure free-agent-to-be when their reincarnation reached the pinnacle.”

And he climaxed the Braves’ improbable self-resurrection from midway last year—when their entire outfield needed to be rebuilt on the play—to hoisting one of commissioner Rob Manfred’s pieces of metal when it all ended with a flourish.

Those comparing Olson now to Freeman at the same age might care to examine both over the six seasons and counting of Olson’s career but a little deeper than normal. Like Freeman, Olson can hit and slug. Olson’s a slightly better defender at first base, but if you measure them according to my Real Batting Average metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—there’s a decent size gulf between them:

Player, 2016-2021 PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Freddie Freeman 2868 1370 362 62 15 33 .642
Matt Olson 2369 1046 272 25 14 35 .588

A 54-point gulf between them. In fairness, though, Olson spent his first six seasons with a none-too-great home park in which to hit, and he’s been measurably better on the road so far. Freeman has been practically the same hitter at home or on the road over his career thus far. But give Olson a park like Freeman’s Truist Park in which to hit at home, and he would get a lot, lot closer to Freeman’s performance papers.

So maybe, big maybe, in pure baseball terms the Braves switched a Freeman with a Freeman. If so, why on earth do it in the first place when it involves not just one of the game’s elite first basemen but a still-young man who was only too happy and proud to wear the Braves uniform and would have loved nothing more than to wear it to the end of his playing days?

The Braves are said to have offered Freeman five years to come, and Freeman is said to have wanted the sixth. Adjusted for inflation, Freeman’s now-expired eight-year extension equals the one Olson has now signed. As Crizer observes dryly, the Braves basically signed a slightly younger Freeman.

But Olson’s not Freeman redux just yet. We don’t know what kind of clubhouse cred Olson will prove to develop as a Brave. Freeman had such cred to burn. Assorted now-former Freeman teammates spoke of losing him as just about a death in the family, about losing a guy who wasn’t just a game or season-changing player but a guy who reached to pull everyone else up with him.

What of Freeman’s age? Well, now. He probably has a better chance of keeping his formidable bat for the entire eight seasons to come than his legs and reflexes at first base. The designated hitter becomes permanent in the National League this year. It’s entirely conceivable that the Braves re-signing Freeman for just the six years he sought meant they’d keep a quality first baseman for its first four and still have a quality DH over the final two.

Even general manager Alex Anthopolous sounded as though he’d made the Olson deal at all but gunpoint. In the wake of revelations that the Braves’ owners, Liberty Media, generated such revenues and profit last year that put the lie to the owner-side pleas that investing in baseball isn’t investing profitably, it sounds even more now as though, to the Braves, loyalty was about as valuable as Major Strasser described human life in Casablanca.

Olson to his credit isn’t even thinking about trying to “replace” Freeman. “I’m just going to go out there and do what Matt Olson does,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. So far, so good, for him, never mind that you can’t remember Freeman ever referring to himself in the third person.

But do you think they’re going to love Freeman’s clubhouse embrace and his penchant for the lefthanded inside-out swing in Boston? (They need anything resembling a quality first baseman who can hit.) In San Diego? (They’re unafraid to spend and they’re shopping incumbent Eric Hosmer, who’s no Freddie Freeman and has barely been an Eric Hosmer since leaving Kansas City.) In Toronto? In Los Angeles?

Freeman meant enough to the Braves, their fan base, and even the opponents who respected and, yes, enjoyed him, but they meant something to him, too.

“We’d lost 97 games six years ago. And we’re looking at four straight division titles [since] and a world championship now,” Freeman said in a television interview right after the World Series ended in triumph. “It’s just a testament to this organisation, the guys they brought in, the front office, they pushed all the right buttons and we played so well for the last three months . . . Being in this organisation means everything to me . . . Everyone knows this is a crazy game, a crazy business, but everyone knows where my heart is, and this is the Atlanta Braves.”

The Olson deal sealing Freeman’s future away from Atlanta reminds one who was there of the manner in which a certain university president, destined to become a baseball commissioner, nailed how Mets fans felt when contentious negotiations (and scurrilous media attacks) turned into the unceremonious purge of a certain Hall of Fame pitcher in 1977:

[A]mong all the men who play baseball there is, very occasionally, a man of such qualities of heart and mind and body that he transcends even the great and glorious game, and . . . such a man is to be cherished, not sold.

Or, left to the waiting arms of another team for whom those very qualities of heart, mind, and body might mean another trip to the postseason that includes another lease upon the Promised Land.

Blake Snell’s hidden plea

2019-12-07 BlakeSnell

Blake Snell was not amused by the Rays trading Tommy Pham.

Within Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell’s gutteral emission upon the trade of Tommy Pham to the San Diego Padres, you could find a plea pondered almost as long as professional baseball’s been played. If you wanted to.

On the surface, Snell fuming aboard the social media outlet Twitch was negative amazement that Pham would be surrendered for lesser elements: “We gave Pham up for [Hunter] Renfroe and a damn slap[penis] prospect?” And he has a pretty point, since the Rays may or may not have received equal value in return.

Baseball administrators are nothing if not men and women seeking the maximum prospective performance at the minimum prospective cost, of course. Pham earned $41. million in 2019 and was liable to earn more next season following salary arbitration; Renfroe earned $582,000 in 2019 and isn’t eligible for arbitration until after next year. And the damn slap[penis] prospect, Xavier Edwards, was ranked number five on the Padres prospect list before the deal.

Renfroe in 2019 was the Clete Boyer of outfielders, hitting 33 home runs against a .289 on-base percentage, rather companionable to the longtime Yankee third base legend’s 1967 with the Braves, 26 home runs and a .292 OBP. And Renfroe is a promising defender in his own right. But the Rays are renowned for mulcting large results out of small costs and the words “salary dump” come to mind for some, surely.

Snell apologised almost post haste. “[J]ust saying I’m sorry I’m just upset we’re losing a guy like Tommy who helped our team in so many ways!” he said. “Didn’t mean any disrespect to Edwards who I didn’t know who he was until after I said that. I was just sad to lose Tommy . . . It’s tough losing someone you respect so much and enjoy being around.”

Thus does Snell invite deeper examination, where you may find the unenunciated very present plea for loyalty and the noticeable absence thereof. Except that when you do enunciate it, you provoke another tirelessly tiring debate on where the loyalty disappeared among, well, the players, who need to learn a thing or three about loyalty while they pursue their unsightly riches, yap yap yap.

It’s been that way ever since the advent of free agency, of course. Once upon a time it amused, if only because those bellowing against the lack of player loyalty were only too obvious in their ignorance, willful or otherwise, regarding the lack of team loyalty even to Hall of Famers. In both the so-called Good Old Days and the days, years, decades to follow. It’s still somewhat amusing, even when it gets somewhat annoying.

Referencing Hall of Famers was something I did about a decade ago, for another publication, when pondering the “loyalty” question. (That publication ceased to exist not long after I published my old finding.) It began then and now with there having been but one single-team player (Walter Johnson) among the inaugural five players enshrined in 1936. The first single-team Hall of Famer to follow: Lou Gehrig, in 1939.

It goes from there to those whose careers were entirely or mostly reserve era. Thirty-six single-team Hall of Famers played all or mostly in the reserve era; eighteen (allowing the prospect of at least Derek Jeter and Thurman Munson being elected for 2020 induction) played all or mostly in the free agency era. Out of all 232 Hall of Fame players (Jeter and Munson included), it means 54 players—23 percent, not even one quarter of all Hall of Fame players—were single teamers.

The reasons vary as much as their playing or pitching styles do. Age is one. The chance to bolster or reconstruct a roster, hopefully without downright tanking, is another. Issues off the field, which didn’t begin with Rogers Hornsby’s trade after winning a World Series (as a player-manager) because he was a horse’s ass so far as his team (and a lot of baseball) was concerned and didn’t end with the Phillies’ barely conscionable mistaking of a slumping should-be Hall of Famer Scott Rolen for lacking heart or passion, are others.

Still others are organisational philosophy changes, and economic hardship real (think of Connie Mack’s fire sales breaking apart two separate Philadelphia Athletics dynasties) or alleged. (Think of M. Donald Grant’s capricious purge of Tom Seaver in 1977, to name one, or Charlie Finley’s capricious practically everything around the dynastic-turned-rubble Oakland Athletics of the 1970s. Among others.)

The loyalty issue has been with us since the signature dried on the Messersmith-McNally ruling that ended the reserve clause’s abuse in 1975 and provoked the immediate firing of arbitrator Peter Seitz, who heard the evidence real or imagined and ruled properly on behalf of Andy Messersmith. (The intending-retirement, non-playing Dave McNally, technically an unsigned player, signed onto the action as an insurance fallback in the event the refusing-to-sign Messersmith wavered during the 1975 season.)

And almost invariably it begins with rare diversions forward with player loyalty. The fact that owners pre- and post-free agency felt little if any comparable “loyalty” to their players remains underrated if not undiscussed if not untouched at all. The millionaires-versus-billionaires debate is an exercise in fatuity; the loyalty-versus-disloyalty debate exercises a lot of plain nonsense by people who’d impress you otherwise as being old enough and smart enough to know better.

This week Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner said plainly that the team could afford to keep only one of two now-free agent World Series heroes/homegrown Nats, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, but not both. Lerner’s are economic reasons by his own proclamation, never mind that between himself and his father they’re baseball’s second-richest owners at this writing. Warble not about “loyalty” when Strasburg and Rendon—neither now under binding contract, each free to negotiate on a fair and open job market—are told, pending an unforeseen change of mind or heart, that the team who raised them can’t afford to keep both.

Last March Mike Trout looked at two seasons to come before his first free agency and no small speculation as to whether he’d stay where he was or move elsewhere, and as to how many teams would prepare to mortgage the gold reserves to bring him aboard. That talk included a certain freshly-signed, $350 million Phillie whispering sweet nothings toward Trout regarding keeping the City of Brotherly Love very much at the front of his mind.

Then Trout and his Los Angeles Angels agreed mutually to make him an Angel for life to a $450 million extent, the major talk of which surrounded how richly he deserved the dollars while there seemed little enough appreciation for Trout himself proclaiming publicly, without sounding sirens or fireworks, that he was plenty enough content where he was. And, by the way, hoping more than kinda-sorta that the Angels, maybe, finally, might reconstruct themselves into a team their and baseball’s best player could be proud of.

That was a mutual exercise in loyalty by player and team that went noticed to a glandular level over the fact that Trout would earn the equivalent of a small country’s economy for the rest of his playing career and to a dust bunny’s level over their hard-earned loyalty to each other. Remember it the next time you eavesdrop upon or partake in yet another exercise in the just plain nonsense that baseball loyalty debates become, at least as often as Trout steals a home run from over the center field fence, or hits one there.