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Freeman could be new Chipper for Braves

Atlanta ensures All-Star first baseman will stay through 2021 @philgrogers

It's been a memorable winter for Freddie Freeman.

A week ago, while driving his truck home from Turner Field after an appearance for the Braves, Freeman was stranded for nearly 11 hours on Atlanta's icy roads during a winter storm. He would have been stuck longer, but he was rescued by a fellow resident of suburban Roswell who was driving an all-terrain vehicle.

That was Chipper Jones.

Now, it seems, the Braves believe that Freeman's next act will be to become Jones -- a cornerstone hitter on a perennial contender whose production is so reliable it can be assumed every spring.

For 18 years, Jones was the guy holding lineups together for Braves managers Bobby Cox and Fredi Gonzalez. He retired after 2012, and it was the baby-faced Freeman who moved up in the order to replace him, sort of how the 23-year-old Jones slid into the spot in front of Fred McGriff back in 1995.

A career .303 hitter who won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1999 and rarely rested during a season before mid-October, Jones will have a strong case when he goes before National Baseball Hall of Fame voters. That's a lot to put on anyone, but Freeman is cut from that same ballplayer cloth -- a simple, straightforward guy who has learned to trust himself -- and is coming off an age-23 season in which he hit .319 with 23 home runs and an .897 OPS.

That's better than Jones did at the same point in his career -- although he didn't have as much big league experience as Freeman, having missed the 1994 season after tearing a ligament in his left knee in Spring Training. The Braves believe he will repeat that performance year after year, which is why they have given him the biggest contract in franchise history, an eight-year deal worth $135 million. 

They gave right fielder Jason Heyward a two-year, $13.3-million extension earlier on Tuesday, then finalized the Freeman deal with agent Casey Close. For a team with a ton of long-term financial flexibility -- only $16.05 million on the books beyond 2015 -- it's smart business.

The price of elite talent is climbing. It makes sense to get out in front of the market with a young star who continues to climb toward his ceiling.

General manager Frank Wren still faces a potential arbitration hearing with closer Craig Kimbrel, but he has mostly worked his way to the finish line after ending the season with 14 arbitration-eligible players.

Three players (Paul Janish, Elliot Johnson and Cristhian Martinez) were non-tendered. Eight were signed to one-year deals. With Heyward agreeing to a two-year deal and Freeman nearing a long-term extension, all that's left is Kimbrel, who awaits a Feb. 17 hearing.

Or, possibly, a multiyear deal that rewards him for being baseball's best closer. It's hard to imagine things going too sideways between Kimbrel and the Braves. That's not how it has worked since John Schuerholz arrived from Kansas City to help Stan Kasten bring order to Ted Turner's franchise.

Hitting is hard to find at every level these days, with the game swinging to pitching and run prevention. But Freeman, Heyward and shortstop Andrelton Simmons give Atlanta one of the best trios of under-25 hitters anywhere, and as a bonus, all three of them save runs with their gloves (Simmons plus-41, Heyward plus-16 and Freeman plus-7 last year, according to Baseball Info Solutions).

While it was Justin Upton and B.J. Upton who were in the spotlight last spring, Freeman, Heyward and Simmons have emerged as the guys to build future contenders around.

Freeman was among the sea of first-time All-Stars in New York last summer. But with a sweet swing and enviable bat speed, he's likely going to become a regular at the event.

Here's hoping Freeman has learned one of the last lessons he needed -- to stay off the roads when winter storms are in the forecast.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones, Andrelton Simmons