You might have thought that Freddie Freeman’s return to the Braves beyond 2021 would have been a foregone conclusion, or wrapped up long ago. After all, he’s been with the organization since being drafted in 2007. He’s played all 1,565 of his Major League games there. He won the 2020 NL MVP as a Brave, and he was last seen helping to bring the 2021 World Series title to Georgia.
But despite obvious mutual interest, an extension before free agency didn’t happen. An agreement in the first part of this winter’s hot stove didn’t happen. And, as the baseball world opens back up, with Opening Day less than a month away, Freeman remains a free agent. Any of the 30 teams could sign him. Only one will.
Who will? The Dodgers just may be front-runners at this point, having offered Freeman a multiyear deal, according to sources. But putting aside the most recent buzz for a moment, let’s make some groups. Let's count those teams down, 30-1.
One thing to remember, though, which is new: All 30 teams have a designated hitter now. At 32, Freeman is hardly playing himself off first base, but the fact that DH is now a part of the National League means that at least in theory, teams that already have a first baseman might still have some room to add Freeman and push their incumbent to DH, or at least have the two of them share some time.
So, where will he go? Let’s start with where he’s not going to go.
The teams that already have 1B/DH spoken for
30-25) Angels, Astros, Tigers, Mets, White Sox, Reds
There’s literally no team that would not be improved by adding Freeman to its roster, because he is either the best all-around first baseman in the game or very close to it. But at least in this reality, it’s not going to happen with these six, because they have a first baseman and a DH and, in most cases, other needs.
The Angels, for example, are perfectly set with Jared Walsh and Shohei Ohtani, and desperately need a shortstop and pitching, not another first baseman. Ditto the Astros, who have Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez, and need a shortstop and an outfielder. In Detroit, is Freeman better than Miguel Cabrera and Spencer Torkelson? Certainly. Are the Tigers going to spend on a first baseman to replace them? They are not.
Keep on going down the list. The Mets are a little overstuffed at first and DH, between Pete Alonso, Dom Smith, and maybe Robinson Canó and J.D. Davis, as well as some outstanding rotation depth questions. So, too, are the White Sox, with Jose Abreu, Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Sheets, and possibly Eloy Jiménez. The Reds have holes, but they also have Joey Votto and a number of bat-first DH options, so this is not a fit.
The teams that have other 1B questions to answer first
24-23) A’s, Padres
Freeman is great, but he’s not that much better than Matt Olson, who is nearly five years younger and very much available via trade. The A's certainly aren’t going to trade Olson and then turn around and sign Freeman, and they’re definitely not going to keep Olson and then ask Freeman to DH. If Freeman is wearing green and yellow in 2022, there’s a better chance he’s backing up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay than he is calling the East Bay home.
It’s a little different in San Diego, where Freeman would be a massive upgrade over incumbent Eric Hosmer, who has been worth all of 0.5 WAR (FanGraphs version) in four years with the team. That said, it’s a little hard to see the Padres handing out a second massive contract to a lefty-swinging first baseman -- unless they can move Hosmer first. That seems like a few too many moving parts in a short window, though.
The rebuilding teams that just aren’t a fit right now
22-16) Nationals, Orioles, Pirates, D-backs, Cubs, Royals, Rockies
Again, Freeman would improve all of these clubs, every single one, in some cases by 5-6 wins all by himself. Even so, some of them just aren’t in the market for a highly paid win-now first baseman at this point. For his part, at 32 years old, Freeman’s not very likely to go somewhere that won’t be ready to truly contend in the next several years anyway.
Now: Are the Rockies really a “rebuilder?” They’d probably dispute the label, though they’ve been in fourth place for three consecutive years, have lost Jon Gray to Texas, and are likely to lose Trevor Story in free agency as well. Either way, it’s all but impossible to see Freeman wearing purple in 2022.
The contending teams that won’t make this happen
15-9) Phillies, Cardinals, Guardians, Giants, Brewers, Marlins, Twins
You can certainly see the appeal of Philadelphia or St. Louis wanting to add a bat like Freeman and sharing 1B/DH time with incumbents Rhys Hoskins and Paul Goldschmidt, respectively, but each team has far bigger fish to fry, though the appeal for the Phillies of swiping a division rival’s longtime superstar must be fun to think about.
The Guardians generally do not make free-agent splashes like this, though he’d certainly be an enormous upgrade on Bobby Bradley or Josh Naylor, as the team endlessly tries to generate enough offense to support its strong pitching machine. You can at least see a world where the Giants try to make this happen, but with Brandon Belt still around and larger needs in the rotation and outfield, this is probably not the path -- especially since they need a right-handed bat more than another lefty hitter.
Meanwhile in Milwaukee, there may not be a better on-paper fit, because the pitching staff is championship-caliber, but the offense is consistently lagging, especially since Keston Hiura’s star has faded badly and Christian Yelich’s last two years have hardly resembled the two before that. The Brewers are just getting into his contract extension, however, with considerable concern about what he’ll bring, and don’t usually play at this level in free agency. Take all the words we said about Cleveland and Milwaukee -- good pitching, lagging offense, generally doesn’t sign top-of-the-line free agents -- and apply it to Miami, too.
Finally, the Twins, and, are they contenders? We’re honestly not sure, though we absolutely believe they are better than last year’s 73-89 showing. Either way, they need pitching, badly. They need a shortstop, badly. They won’t be going big on a first baseman.
The up-and-comers who could really use his bat
8-7) Mariners, Rangers
We don’t, for what it’s worth, expect either of these teams to actually sign Freeman. But there really is an argument for each of them to do it, isn’t there?
Take the Mariners, who did just win 90 games and are considered to be a team full of exciting young talent that’s on the rise … but also scored just the 23rd-most runs in the Majors last year. A power-hitting infielder is a must, and it could be a first baseman, since Evan White has been generally disappointing at the Major League level, and Ty France, a nice surprise with the bat last year, can play multiple spots. Still, this feels a lot more like Kris Bryant or another left-side infielder.
Texas isn’t as close as Seattle to contending, not after losing 102 games last year. Of course, the Rangers aren't your typical last-place team, since they did just commit more than a half-billion dollars to Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Kole Calhoun and Gray, and incumbent first baseman Nate Lowe is not a roadblock. On the other hand, as MLB.com’s Kennedi Landry wrote: “The most prominent need: pitching, pitching and more pitching.” So, maybe don’t expect Freeman in Texas.
The wild rumors that are entirely too much fun to discount
6-5) Rays, Blue Jays
Tampa Bay really ought to belong in the “it’d be fun but there’s just no way” categories above, because the Rays just don’t go after fish this large in the free-agent market. But, we suppose we have to at least acknowledge the report that the Rays made Freeman an offer before the lockout, presumably at a high value over very few years. It’s hard to see a 32-year-old superstar taking a contract that makes him a free agent at 34 or 35 when he doesn't have to, and so he won’t, though the upgrade from Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz would be massive.
The Jays have Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at first base for, they hope, the next decade. They have too many outfielders, several of whom aren’t strong defenders, and too many catchers too, meaning they have no shortage of DH candidates. Plus, their biggest infield hole is at third base, unless it’s second base, unless it’s both. There’s absolutely no way this should work. And yet: those Toronto rumors just won’t go away, will they? Freeman won’t fix the bullpen issues this team has, but we sure would love to see him in the middle of a lineup with Guerrero, Bo Bichette and George Springer.
The wonderful on- and off-field fits
4-2) Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers
We know. We’re sorry. We really did not come into this with a plan that this group would be the three organizations that tend to take up the most oxygen in the room, and yet it all fits.
In Boston, Kyle Schwarber is a free agent as well, and DH J.D. Martinez has only one year left on his deal. As interesting as first basemen Bobby Dalbec and Triston Casas each are, neither should prevent you from adding Freeman. The main issue here is that they desperately need help in the bullpen, and probably prefer a righty bat -- Seiya Suzuki would fit perfectly -- and need to resolve the contract statuses of Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers.
For the Yankees, the need for a lefty bat last year was acute, and while Joey Gallo remains, Anthony Rizzo is a free agent. They don’t seem to trust Luke Voit to stay healthy, so first base is a need, making Freeman a possible fit. On the other hand, since a much more urgent need is at shortstop, the likelier option is that they sign a left-side infielder and trade for Olson, or give Voit another shot.
As for Freeman’s home-state Dodgers? They could use a lefty bat to replace Seager, especially since it’s difficult to know what to expect from returning lefties Cody Bellinger and Gavin Lux. It’s not like there isn’t room here, because incumbent first baseman Max Muncy could easily play second base or DH. This really isn’t that hard to see happening at all.
The obvious return home
If this is too obvious a way to finish, well, it absolutely should be. Freeman has spent parts of a dozen years with the Braves, and another contract there might just take him to the end of his career, positioning him to be a true franchise icon, something akin to Chipper Jones or John Smoltz.
Both sides have said they’d like to continue their relationship. In a more immediate sense, the Braves simply need him, because they don’t have any sort of acceptable internal Plan B right now -- yes, that’s Orlando Arcia and John Nogowski atop the depth chart there -- and potentially adding Rizzo (via free agency) or Voit (via trade) would still represent a big step down. (Though trading for Olson might not.)
Sometimes, the most obvious answers are obvious because they’re so obvious. We’ve never seen Freeman wear a Major League uniform that isn’t Atlanta’s. Though it's surprising a return wasn't wrapped up long ago, it'd be more surprising to see him play anywhere else.