Players hit camp -- will Freeman follow?

March 13th, 2022

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Ronald Acuña Jr. walked without any sign of a limp and Charlie Morton comfortably completed a bullpen session without any concern for his previously fractured leg. As for Tyler Matzek, he was still riding the high created by last year’s postseason dominance.

Everything seemed right as the defending World Series champion Braves reported to CoolToday Park on Sunday. Well, everything, minus the absence of Freddie Freeman, who may soon reveal whether he will extend what has already been an iconic career in Atlanta.

Freeman currently stands as one of baseball’s top free agents. The Braves remain a potential suitor, but the Yankees, Dodgers or possibly the Blue Jays might now be the favorites to land the veteran first baseman, who has been a part of Atlanta’s organization since being selected in the second round of the 2007 MLB Draft.

“You see these banners up here with these numbers retired and everything like that,” Morton said while standing outside the Braves’ Spring Training home. “If [Freeman] isn't there already, if he spends a few more years here, he's going to be one of the guys with his number retired and a Braves legend.”

After spending the past 11 seasons as a key member of the Braves’ lineup, Freeman ranks up there with Dale Murphy, Andruw Jones and Eddie Mathews as the franchise’s most beloved franchise players not named Chipper Jones or Hank Aaron. The 32-year-old won a National League MVP Award in 2020 and helped the Braves win a World Series last year.

Freeman has spent the past few years making it clear he wants to spend his entire career in Atlanta. But as his value and cost rose, he never gained the extension he was seeking.

Consequently, for the first time since being drafted by the Braves in 2007, Freeman is being courted by other clubs, including the Dodgers and Yankees, who have the financial resources to test how much the first baseman truly does want to remain in Atlanta.

The Braves’ hope to keep Freeman may rest on the willingness to provide a guaranteed sixth year to any offer. If the five-time All-Star receives a six-year deal, the final year of the contract will be his age-37 season. That's just a year older than Chipper Jones was when he hit .364 and won his only batting title.

“I think he's earned the right to accept or turn down an offer that he feels is a fair offer,” Morton said. “What that is, I don’t know. I’d hate to see somebody like that, who spent so much time and who has done so much for an organization, feel like the decision was already made for him. I’d like for him to make that decision for himself.”

When John Smoltz left Atlanta to sign with the Red Sox before the 2009 season, he felt disrespected because the Braves had little contact with him throughout the offseason. The recent lockout prevented clubs from interacting with players and agents for a little more than three months.

But since the lockout ended on Thursday, the Braves have at least had a chance to interact with Freeman and make him feel wanted. Manager Brian Snitker reached out via text just to check on Freeman’s family.

“It wasn’t anything professional or business or anything,” Snitker said. “I was just checking in on him because Freddie is going to be a good friend for the rest of my life, regardless of what happens professionally. I love the guy.”