Balancing present and future the art of Freeman deal
GM Wren sees big contract fitting in nicely with Braves' long-term payroll plans
ATLANTA -- Once they had both avoided arbitration by agreeing to multiyear contracts earlier this week, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward sent each other congratulatory texts.
Though his two-year, $13.3 million contract pales in comparison to the franchise-record eight-year, $135 million commitment Freeman gained from the Braves, Heyward did not allow jealousy to prevent him from expressing happiness for a close friend with whom he has spent nearly all of his professional career.
"It's nice to be able share with somebody you have known before you got drafted," Freeman said. "Being in the same organization and the same team together, it's something special."
Freeman and Heyward have been together nearly every step of the way, dating back to 2007, when the Braves selected them in the first two rounds of the First-Year Player Draft. Even in 2010, when Heyward was enjoying a successful rookie season and Freeman was gaining one more year of Minor League seasoning, the two shared a suburban Atlanta residence.
But now that Freeman has signed this megadeal, there is reason to wonder if the Braves will be able to keep the two together once Heyward becomes eligible for free agency after the 2015 season.
To take it a step further, it will be interesting to see how much of their talented young core the Braves will be able to keep together in preparation to make the move to their new Cobb County stadium in 2017.
General manager Frank Wren said extending Freeman was just the first step in a comprehensive plan to lock up some of the club's other talented young players. As the club discusses potential deals with the likes of Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran, it will do so with the knowledge that revenues generated from the new stadium will allow for a healthy bump to the current payroll, which will rest around $100 million this year.
"That's our expectation, or we wouldn't have done [the Freeman deal]," Wren said. "If we felt this would put us in a bind to be competitive, we would not have done it. We feel like the revenues will allow our payroll to grow significantly."
Freeman's contract, which includes a $2.875 million signing bonus, will provide him what he was targeted to make through his three arbitration-eligible seasons and then include salaries that exceed $20 million over the final five years. The 24-year-old first baseman's annual salary breakdown is $5.125 million (2014), $8.5 million ('15), $12 million ('16), $20.5 million ('17), $21 million ('18 and '19) and $22 million ('20 and '21).
"The deal makes sense because the normal escalation the three arbitration years would have had naturally," Wren said. "Then he gets paid in his free agent years at the current market. What we're I guess gambling is that by the time his free agent years come in three years, that market may have inflated even further and we've got a good deal. We feel it's a solid market deal as [there] is for an above-average player."
Like with Heyward and Freeman, the Braves have discussed the possibility of a multiyear deal with Craig Kimbrel, their only remaining unsigned arbitration-eligible player. But recent discussions between the two parties have seemingly only increased the possibility that this could be the closer's final season in Atlanta.
Kimbrel's future with the club might be better understood after his Feb. 17 arbitration hearing. The dominant closer is seeking $9 million and the Braves have offered $6.55 million.
If Kimbrel wins this settlement during his first year of eligibility, his salaries for his final two arbitration-eligible seasons would likely exceed what Atlanta would be willing to offer. But even if he loses, the club might still be persuaded to deal him after this season. The return for two controllable seasons would obviously be greater than if Kimbrel was traded just before becoming eligible for free agency after the 2016 season.
While Heyward will never again have to worry about the arbitration process, he will enter this year motivated by the opportunity to produce numbers that are more fitting of the tremendous potential he has occasionally shown since coming to the Majors as the game's top prospect.
As Freeman has spent the past few seasons producing a projectible long-term value, Heyward has not yet produced the kind of numbers that accurately equate to his potential value. The 16.5 WAR (per FanGraphs) he has produced since 2010 ranks 10th among all Major League outfielders. But injuries have tainted his career numbers, which include a .259 batting average and a .794 OPS.
Before experiencing the misfortune of fracturing his jaw and undergoing an emergency appendectomy last year, Heyward was aiming to build upon the success he had in 2012, when he hit .269 with 27 home runs and 21 stolen bases.
If Heyward remains healthy during the next two years, he is quite capable of proving productive enough to receive the kind of contract Freeman received. Whether the Braves are capable of providing him this kind of offer remains to be seen. But Wren is not ruling out the possibility.
"The injuries are no fault of Jason," Wren said. "He's had some tough luck injury wise. So it's hard to know exactly who he's going to be and what that trend line is going to look like. We're hoping this two-year bridge gives us enough information that we'd love Jason to be a part of this organization for a long time. I can't say today how that's going to work out. But that's our hope."