The Atlanta Braves had a difficult offseason. Star catcher Brian McCann and veteran pitcher Tim Hudson both left Atlanta and instead of replacing those players, the Braves stood pat.
Fans were restless.
But on Tuesday, the Braves and general manager Frank Wren reportedly reached multi-year contract agreements with first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Jason Heyward, per Jon Morosi of Fox Sports.
Freeman's contract is believed to be for eight years and $135 million. Heyward's agreement was a two-year deal for $13.3 million.
The Braves were scheduled to have arbitration hearings for both players soon, but instead chose to lock up, arguably, the team's two most valuable players.
So instead of using the savings acquired from the departures of McCann and Hudson to chase overpriced free agents, Wren chose to invest in his young core. Atlanta is currently stuck with two bad long-term contracts in Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, so the payroll-conscious Braves must be frugal with their finances.
Both Freeman and Heyward are 24 years old and viewed as rising stars around the league. Freeman, in his third full season in 2013, set career highs in average (.319) and RBI (109). He also hit 23 home runs. He plays Gold Glove quality defense at first base, too.
|Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman's Career Stats|
|Player||Average||Home Runs||RBI||Hits||Runs||Stolen Bases||OBP||SLG||OPS||WAR|
|Per Baseball Reference|
So why did Heyward only get a two-year deal?
His lengthy injury history likely played a part in him just getting the two years. Heyward, with four full seasons under his belt, has had at least one stint on the disabled list in three of those years.
The 6'5", 240-pound Heyward moved to the leadoff spot last summer and thrived in the role. The Braves' offense improved dramatically with Heyward atop the batting order. Manager Fredi Gonzalez moved Heyward to the top of the order on July 27 and he hit .325 from that point on, according to Eric Single of MLB.com.
Heyward is an outstanding defensive player, too.
Depending on how the next year or two goes, Wren could look to give Heyward a lengthy extension.
Now that Freeman and Heyward are in the fold for at the least the next two years, who should the Braves lock up next?
Many would think that closer Craig Kimbrel would be the logical choice. He, like Freeman and Heyward, is arbitration eligible. However, unlike those two, Kimbrel asked for $9 million in his first arbitration-eligible year. The Braves countered with $6.55 million.
Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball and it's not even close. But can a team like Atlanta afford to give a relief pitcher $9 million or more per year? Highly unlikely.
That leads us to shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Simmons isn't even arbitration eligible until 2015, but is already a cornerstone player. The Braves could look to lock up the dynamic young shortstop and buy out his arbitration years much like they did with McCann in 2007.
Young players are usually receptive to such deals as they can avoid the arbitration process and get more money up front.
Simmons is already the game's top defensive shortstop. And at 6'2", 170 pounds, is still developing as a hitter. He hit just .248 in 2013, his first full season, but did tally 17 home runs. He won the Gold Glove and finished 14th in the voting for National League MVP.
The deals given to Heyward and Freeman should offer hope to Braves' fans wanting more. Atlanta locked up two terrific young homegrown players and can now continue to build the team around them.
Wren must do everything possible to keep his young roster intact. Uggla and Upton are set to make a combined $28 million in 2014 alone, according to Rotoworld. If at least one of those two bounce back after a miserable 2013, the Braves should contend for another N.L. East title.
*All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference