Way back when the dawn of time happened to coincide with the start of Major League Baseball's 2021-22 offseason, it seemed safe to take it for granted that Atlanta woudn't let superstar first baseman Freddie Freeman leave as a free agent.
Yet this didn't happen before MLB's owners locked out the players on Dec. 2, and the mood surrounding Freeman's potential reunion with Atlanta has only shifted further toward skepticism.
On Tuesday, ESPN's Buster Olney wrote of a "growing belief" within baseball that Freeman won't re-up with the only organization he's known since he began his professional career in 2007. This is a week after Chipper Jones, Freeman's friend and a fellow Atlanta legend, also cast doubt on the team's likelihood of retaining him during a radio interview.
Granted, the 32-year-old Freeman literally can't sign elsewhere until there's a new collective bargaining agreement and the lockout is lifted. And even then, Freeman departing from Atlanta will hardly be a fait accompli.
In the meantime, though, all this chatter is about as unsurprising as it must be disappointing for Atlanta fans.
Atlanta Doesn't Want to Take a Risk Worth Taking
In fairness to Atlanta, maybe the team thinks it's already done the best deal it's ever going to do with Freeman.
Though he was only 24 years old at the time, he was already established as one of baseball's top first basemen when he inked an eight-year, $135 million extension in February 2014. So it went between then and 2021 as he posted a .300/.394/.526 slash line, 203 home runs and the second-most WAR among first basemen behind Paul Goldschmidt.
Freeman's high point? Individually speaking, it was surely when he won the National League MVP in 2020. More broadly, it's hard to top him spearheading last year's championship run with a 1.045 OPS and five homers throughout the playoffs.
It is, of course, impossible to quantify how much Freeman endeared himself to the organization and the city of Atlanta. But if there's a moment that sums it up, it's when Dansby Swanson earned raucous cheers during Atlanta's World Series celebration last November by publicly pleading with the team to re-sign Freeman :
The man himself, meanwhile, never gave off the impression that he wanted out. On the contrary, Freeman was vocal about wanting to stay. Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos reciprocated in November, right around the time when he promised the team's payroll would increase in 2022.
Just not enough, apparently, to satisfy Freeman's demands for his next contract.
As reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today in November, the slugger wants something in the range of six years and $200 million. That's one more year and many more dollars over the five-year, $135 million offer that Atlanta put forward.
The $30 million-plus per year that Freeman wants is more or less the going rate for superstars these days. Atlanta's offer, though, is basically a carbon copy of what Goldschmidt got from the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019. In and of itself, that he was a year younger than Freeman is now is arguably justification enough for Atlanta's relative stinginess.
Further, stars like Freeman historically haven't aged well. He's one of 22 modern first basemen to produce at least 40 WAR through their age-31 seasons. Of the other 21, only nine managed so much as 15 WAR from their age-32 season onward. Out of the other 12, by far the scariest cautionary tale is Albert Pujols.
But whereas signs of imminent decline were all over Pujols when he inked a 10-year, $240 million contract after his age-31 season in 2011, that's simply not the case with Freeman now. He just hit .300/.393/.503 in the regular season last year, and peripheral stats like his .320 xBA and .583 xSLG suggest he actually underachieved.
As anti-Pujols success stories go, Joey Votto stands out. He's continued to wield a potent bat after turning 32, including as a 37-year-old in 2021 as he blasted 36 home runs with a .938 OPS.
Hall of Famers Frank Thomas and Jim Thome are two more recent-ish success stories, and they had the advantage of something that Freeman also stands to benefit from starting in 2022: the designated hitter in the National League. For Atlanta, it would be a means to keep Freeman's bat in the lineup without having to deploy his legs on the field on a daily basis.
To be sure, Atlanta has never spent so much as $150 million on an individual player. Or on any of its full-season payrolls, for that matter. But if ever there was a time for an unprecedented splurge, it's one in which the franchise is awash in cash.
Per Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that's right now. Between what it earned in the regular season and what it figured to earn in the playoffs, he projected Atlanta to beat its peak full-year revenue of $476 million.
So, don't be fooled. Though Atlanta is acting like it can't go higher than $135 million for Freeman, the likely truth is that it just doesn't want to.
There Is One Way Atlanta Could Save Face
If Atlanta's stance ultimately does result in Freeman departing for richer pastures, the team is going to have some explaining to do to all the people who...well, who were on the same page as Swanson last November.
Or, it could go right to making a peace offering in the form of a trade for Matt Olson.
This, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, is something that Atlanta discussed with the Oakland Athletics prior to the lockout. Rightfully so, as Olson might as well be Freddie Freeman Lite.
Even despite a down year in 2020, Olson has Freeman beat in home runs (142 to 133) and nearly matched in WAR (18.3 to 21.8) over the last five seasons. Olson was a Gold Glover in 2018 and 2019 and an All-Star in 2021. He'll turn 28 on March 29, and he isn't due for free agency until after the 2023 season.
Yet the downside of an Olson trade is that Atlanta would have to match an asking price that MLB Network's Jon Heyman says is moon-like in height. Speculatively, Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors wrote that the A's would have to get a haul akin to what the Miami Marlins got for J.T. Realmuto: an elite prospect and an established or MLB-ready player.
To these ends, Atlanta's options are thin. It can't spare many (if any) players from its major league roster, including two projected starting outfielders who are also among the club's best prospects: Cristian Pache and Drew Waters.
Put another way, it would be simpler to just pay Freeman.
So Who Signs Freeman If Not Atlanta?
Even when Freeman seemed all but destined to re-sign with Atlanta, it was easy to imagine deep-pocketed contenders like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers making things interesting.
Sure enough, Heyman reported that those two plus the Toronto Blue Jays were in the mix for Freeman before the lockout:
Jon Heyman @JonHeyman
Teams are trying to pry superstar 1B Freddie Freeman from Atlanta. Some say they still don’t think it will happen but r surprised he’s still free. Dodgers, who lost Seager and could move Muncy to 2B, may have best hope for SoCal product, NYY, TOR (h/t Carlos Baerga) reached out.
To the extent that they got an MLB-low 20 home runs from the left side of the plate in 2021, Freeman fits the Blue Jays as a lineup-balancer. But since he's only 22 years old, it's hard to imagine them condemning superstar slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to an everyday DH role just yet. At least not while they have bigger fish to fry at third base and in the bullpen.
The Yankees, meanwhile, apparently "love" Freeman. But he's also more of a luxury than a need for them while they still have Luke Voit. They're also already looking at a $226.4 million luxury-tax payroll for 2022, so they might first have to cut before they pursue players they need, much less want.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, make a tad more sense.
Though they also have a bloated payroll for 2022, it's A) nothing new for them and B) actually less than what they spent in 2021 by tens of millions of dollars. They also need a left-handed slugger to fill the shoes of the departed Corey Seager, and they can make room for Freeman by moving Max Muncy to second base or DH.
Plus, Freeman is a Southern California native. Double-plus, third baseman Justin Turner lent some credence to the notion that Dodgers players want Freeman on the team:
Regarding the field, R.J. Anderson of CBS Sports identified the Texas Rangers as a dark horse for Freeman. They've already spent $556 million on Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray, yet they arguably need a player of Freeman's experience and talent to truly take the leap into contention.
Speculatively, Freeman also fits with the Boston Red Sox, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies. The Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres are longer shots because of their respective financial situations—shallow pockets for the former and an oversized payroll for the latter—but both could use a hitter of Freeman's caliber.
Ultimately, the best of all best guesses is that Freeman will end up on the Dodgers.
ESPN's Alden Gonzalez speculated they are unlikely to give him six years, but perhaps a five-year contract at an average annual value to Freeman's liking will get it done. To this end, even one for $30 million per year would put him $15 million up on what Atlanta is offering.
In any case, it's hard to imagine any scenario in which a falling-out with Atlanta doesn't work out for Freeman. If it doesn't pay him market value, someone else surely will.