ATLANTA -- Before the start of the 2014 season, the Braves essentially chose their franchise cornerstone by buying out Jason Heyward's final two arbitration-eligible seasons and providing Freddie Freeman a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract.
Yeah, there were rumblings about the possibility of trading Freeman after his frustrating, injury-plagued 2015 season. But once the 27-year-old first baseman overcame concerns about his right wrist and re-established himself as one of the game's elite performers this past season, the Braves gained comfort with the commitment that will net Freeman $106.5 million over the next five seasons.
Freeman's salary jumps from $12 million to $20.5 million for the 2017 season. He will make $21 million in the two seasons that follow and then $22 million in both '20 and '21 -- the final two years of the deal.
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, 13 position players will draw a higher salary than Freeman's $20.5 million in 2017: Jose Cabrera ($28 million), Jose Pujols ($26 million), Robinson Cano ($24 million), Joe Mauer ($23 million), Yoenis Cespedes ($22.5 million), Justin Upton ($22.3 million), Hanley Ramirez ($22 million), Joey Votto ($22 million), Heyward ($21.5 million), Adrian Gonzalez ($21.5 million), Matt Kemp ($21.5 million), Buster Posey ($21.4 million) and Jayson Werth ($21 million).
As Freeman enters the prime of his career, he is coming off a season within which he ranked ninth in the Majors with a 6.1 fWAR and sixth with 152 Weighted Runs Created Plus. The only high-salaried players mentioned in the previous paragraph who produced an fWAR of at least 4.0 in 2017 were Cano (6.0), Votto (5.0), Cabrera (4.9) and Posey (4.0).
Among National League players, Freeman's fWAR trailed only Kristopher Bryant and Corey Seager, who finished first and third, respectively, in NL MVP Award voting.
The true value of a contact is not realized until its expiration, but the Braves must certainly be thankful Freeman became their cornerstone instead of Heyward, who produced a career-worst 1.6 fWAR in 2016 while ranking second-to-last among all qualified NL players with a 72 WRC+ after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs last offseason.
Since Freeman signed his current deal, he ranks seventh in the NL with a 142 WRC+. Heyward's defensive value has slightly obscured the fact that he ranks 51st over the same span with an essentially average 101 WRC+.
Freeman will make an average of $21.3 million over the next five seasons. The average annual value of the remaining life of the current contracts for the eight players who ranked ahead of him in fWAR are as follows: Michael Trout ($30.575 million AAV, four years remaining), Bryant (not yet arbitration-eligible), Mookie Betts (not yet arbitration-eligible), Josh Donaldson ($17 million, one year), Seager (not yet arbitration-eligible), Jose Altuve ($5.7 million, three years), Manny Machado (MLB Trade Rumors projects his 2017 arbitration salary to be $11.2M) and Francisco Lindor (not yet arbitration-eligible).
A quick comparison between this list and the above list of highest-salaried position players shows how baseball economics often rewards past performance, which is how young stars like Bryant, Betts, Seager and Altuve will eventually make up for the value they added before becoming arbitration-eligible or hitting the free-agent market.
The Braves made their commitment to Freeman after he ranked 10th in the NL with a 5.0 fWAR in 2013, his third full big league season. Even though his right wrist hampered or sidelined him for a significant portion of '15, Freeman still ranks sixth in the NL in fWAR (13.6) since the start of '14.
The average annual salary over the remaining life of the current contract for the five NL players who rank ahead of Freeman in fWAR since the start of 2014 are as follows: Paul Goldschmidt ($11.5 million, three years remaining), Anthony Rizzo ($10.8 million, five years), Posey ($21.4 million, five years), Bryant and Bryce Harper (MLB Trade Rumors projects his '17 arbitration salary to be $9.3 million).
A baseball executive might say the Braves won't benefit from the bargain price the D-backs (Goldschmidt) and Cubs (Rizzo) will pay their first basemen over the next few years, but an agent would likely argue that Goldschmidt and Rizzo will be underpaid over that period.
Time will tell how Freeman's contract will be viewed once it expires after the 2021 season. But after its first three years, the Braves have no reason to feel buyer's remorse.