Freddie aims to 'bring a championship home'

October 26th, 2021

HOUSTON -- With the Braves on the doorstep of the World Series, former general manager Frank Wren found himself thinking back to the spring of 2014, and a decision that drew criticism from some corners of the baseball world but now ranks high among the reasons Atlanta is playing for a championship.

The Braves were coming off a division title in 2013 and had a stable of budding stars, from and Jason Heyward to Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Tehran -- all 25 or younger, all beginning to get more and more costly as they advanced into their arbitration years. The talent was evident. The desire to keep that talent in Atlanta was there. But at some point, Wren and the Braves knew they would face difficult financial decisions.

“I think we had more WAR from under-25-year-old players than any team in baseball,” said Wren on Monday from his home outside Atlanta. “We looked at, ‘OK, how do we keep this core together for the long term and then continue to build off that?

“At the top of that list was Freddie.”

Even then, there was a lot to like about Freeman. He’d turned 24 that September after making the National League All-Star team for the first time, and he was on the way to hitting a career-best .319 (with the exception of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season), with other career highs across the board. Freeman finished fifth in NL MVP Award balloting. He was eligible for arbitration for the first time.

In the front office, the feeling was unanimous among Wren, assistant GM Bruce Manno and the Braves’ scouting group that Freeman had more room to grow offensively. From the club’s perspective, the time was right from a baseball perspective to explore a long-term deal beyond Freeman’s three remaining years of club control. And as for the intangibles that are so critical to mega-contracts, that part was easy.

“In Freddie’s case, there’s nothing not to like,” Wren said. “He works, he’s accountable. He’s a great teammate. There were no worries in that regard. We felt really good going into it that he was going to be a real good player for a long time.”

With 2014 Spring Training about to begin and the team and Freeman headed toward an arbitration hearing, Wren entered negotiations with Freeman’s agent, Casey Close. Close also happened to represent Heyward, but the Braves never made an offer of the length and value they were willing to commit to Freeman; Heyward instead inked a two-year deal to buy out his final two seasons of arbitration, was dealt to the Cardinals in November 2014 and then landed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs at the 2015 Winter Meetings.

For Freeman, Wren had the go-ahead from Braves ownership to do what was necessary to avoid letting him get away. As Wren recalls, he and Close had “tough” talks for 2-3 weeks before coming to an agreement that made both sides squeamish -- Close because Freeman was potentially leaving some future earnings on the table in exchange for security, and Wren because of the sheer size of the financial commitment.

It was a Braves record, eclipsing a mark held by a future Hall of Famer: Chipper Jones.

Eight years and $135 million.

“We took some heat for that at the time,” Wren said. “But we felt he was the cornerstone. He was already way undervalued defensively at the time, and we felt like the offense was going to continue to go. He was already a good hitter. But the power was beginning to grow.”

The power did grow. Freeman has hit 203 regular-season home runs since signing that contract, including a trio of seasons with 30-plus home runs. He’s made five NL All-Star teams, won two Silver Slugger Awards and a Gold Glove Award and, in the shortened 2020 season, Freeman won the NL MVP Award. He was the first Brave to do so since Jones in 1999.

Now, Freeman has reached the end of that big contract at the same time the Braves find themselves in the World Series for the first time in his career. Freeman is set to become a free agent for the first time on the day after the final pitch is thrown.

For months, the questions have simmered in the background. Is there actually a chance that Freeman wears a different Major League uniform beyond this season? Or will he continue following in footsteps of Jones, who was drafted by the Braves, played his whole career in Atlanta, retired a Brave and went into the Hall of Fame as a Brave?

Without making any predictions, Wren said, “I think that stuff means something to Freddie.”

Freeman won’t address his next contract until the more pressing business against the Astros is complete. But he did speak on the eve of the World Series about his connection to Atlanta, and the collective sting of seeing Super Bowl LI get away from the Falcons against the Patriots right here in Houston in 2017, and then of a 3-1 lead in the NL Championship Series getting away from Freeman’s Braves against the Dodgers just last year up the road in Arlington, Texas.

“I started living full-time in Atlanta in 2012, I think,” said Freeman, who grew up in Southern California. “So, you start spending six, seven, eight months in the city, you start getting connected, you start going to some Hawks games. Back then, the [NHL’s] Thrashers were still there, so you go to some hockey games. You just start building that connection.

“Next thing you know, you have a son born in Atlanta, and things are just -- you just become part of the city. I've been there a long time, and you start caring about other teams, other sports, and the people in that city and that state of Georgia. So, I care a lot. I did watch the Super Bowl. I watched all that kind of stuff. It would only be right to be brought up when we had what we had to deal with last year.

“So, I'm glad we were able to get past that point. [Atlanta] means a lot. So, hopefully we can bring a championship home to them.”

Wren, meanwhile, is happily retired and is following the Braves in the World Series just like other Atlantans. His regime brought Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. to the big leagues, and while Acuña is out with a knee injury, Freeman and Albies remain fixtures in the middle of the Atlanta order. Wren also has tremendous respect for Braves manager Brian Snitker, the quintessential organizational man.

“I still have some fondness for the guys that were there,” Wren said. “We were an itty-bitty piece of what’s going on now. It’s fun to watch, for sure.”