Is it time for Braves to trade Freeman?
Miller, Simmons deals change timing for Atlanta's window of opportunity
The pair of recent trades that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels and Shelby Miller to the D-backs accomplished two things for the Braves. Most important, they added a stunning infusion of young talent into what was already a very good system. As MLB.com's Mark Bowman noted, excited Braves officials see the enormous haul for Miller as a "pivotal point" in the team's rebuilding.
Second, they also shed some light on when they expect the team will truly be ready to compete, long thought to be tied to the team's 2017 entrance into a new ballpark. Simmons (26, with five more years of team control) and Miller (25, three more years) aren't exactly aging veterans or near the ends of their contracts. They're young enough that they could have been big parts of the next winning Atlanta team, and now they're gone.
Despite a compelling argument that new outfielder Ender Inciarte might be just as valuable overall as Miller in 2016, it's now difficult to see this team truly competing until 2018 at the earliest (at which point the farm system and payroll space ought to make them a monster for several years after). That being the case, the best thing the Braves can do now is make the move they've long insisted they will not, and trade Freddie Freeman .
You can't be serious, right?
Braves fans who have watched star after star (Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Justin Upton, etc.) depart over the past two years are wondering just what a decimated 2016 roster would look like without Freeman, but the truth is, it doesn't matter all that much. FanGraphs projections show Atlanta to be roughly a 68-win team in 2016, and even that's perhaps optimistic considering the club won 67 this year with Simmons and Miller. Any argument over attendance issues without Freeman ignores that even with him, the 2015 Braves had their lowest draw since 1990 -- not coincidentally, the last time they lost as many games. Winning, not stars, draws fans.
Freeman will only be 29 in 2019, so it's not about him being too old to contribute. It's about the fact that between 2015-17, or his age 25-27 seasons, three of his prime years could be spent on a team not in the mix, and that's where the argument comes from. The entire idea comes down to the question of whether Freeman is more valuable to Atlanta by playing (and risking injury) for the Braves for the next few rebuilding years to be around when they're ready to win, or the potentially large collection of younger, cheaper players he'd bring back in return.
So why now?
Despite some valid concern about the sore right wrist that bothered him for much of the season -- though it should be noted his September line of .265/.421/.434 was very good -- there's a good chance that Freeman's trade value now is the highest it will ever be. It's easy enough to look around at the first-base market right now and see that it's basically one person: free agent Chris Davis, who is 2 1/2 years older and reportedly is looking for a $200 million contract.
By comparison, the six years and $118.5 million remaining on Freeman's deal looks like a bargain, and there are teams ready to win right now that could use a first baseman. There's probably no better fit than the Astros, for example, who tentatively have Jon Singleton penciled in at the position and could offer a package including first baseman A.J. Reed, the 2015 Minor League Player of the Year who hit 34 homers, former top Draft pick Mark Appel and Singleton himself.
Or take the Pirates, who have only Michael Morse on their depth chart and might be willing to include Josh Bell or Austin Meadows, among others, in a bid to overtake the Cubs and Cardinals. Perhaps the Red Sox would decide they'd rather have the certainty of Freeman over the experiment of Hanley Ramirez, and find a way to eat most of Ramirez's contract in order to offer infielders Rafael Devers or Yoan Moncada. The specifics of who aren't as important as understanding the offers would be many, and they would be significant.
Atlanta also has to be at least slightly concerned about the fact that Freeman's 2015 season (.840 OPS/133 wRC+), was somewhat less effective than his 2014 (.847/141), which was somewhat less than his 2013 (.897/151). Those numbers are all excellent, so there's not so much worry (especially if his 2015 is chalked up to the wrist) as much as an acknowledgement that there's a trend heading slightly downward, partially due to less power than he showed in 2013, and partially due to the fact that he's hitting into shifts more often (42 percent pull rate in 2014-15, after 36 percent in 2013).
The Braves have been steadfast in saying they don't want to trade Freeman, but they said that about Miller, too. Every player is untouchable right up until the right deal arrives. If the Braves can offload dollars and risk, without really changing the already slim chances of success in 2016-17, while adding even more top-flight young talent for what's looking to be a monster of a team from 2018 on, well, consider that the right deal.