Why the Braves chose Olson over Freeman
Georgia native is nearly five years younger than free agent
That, as they say, escalated quickly.
Twenty-four hours ago, it seemed like Freddie Freeman’s long-expected return to Atlanta was just that: expected. Then, on Monday afternoon, the Braves seemingly shut that door by trading four prospects for Oakland first baseman Matt Olson and the two remaining years on his contract. The next day, out of seemingly nowhere, the team doubled down, giving Olson an eight-year contract that's worth $168 million and includes a 2030 team option.
It’s a deft bit of deal-making, though obviously not one that will be met with unanimous popularity, given Freeman’s status as one of the most popular Braves in franchise history – as well as the fact that he’s still performing at an extremely high level.
Should the Braves have just extended Freeman, kept the prospects and avoided the consternation? Sure, maybe. But despite all the effort it took to make this series of moves happen, they make sense for more than a few reasons.
Opening Day is three weeks from Thursday. The pre-Olson Braves' depth chart at first base was led by John Nogowski, who was released by the Pirates in September, and Orlando Arcia, a middle infielder who has never actually played first. Needless to say, those aren’t really options at all, and whether it was Freeman, fellow free agent Anthony Rizzo or trades for Olson or Luke Voit, the Braves were going to have to do something -- and time was growing thin.
Obviously, signing Freeman was the easiest path here, or at least it should have been, but consider this: It’s been known for many years this was going to be his free-agent winter; none of this came as a surprise. They didn’t get a deal done during the 2021 season. They didn’t get a deal done in the first half of the winter before the lockout. They hadn’t gotten a deal done since the Hot Stove re-opened last week. Whether that’s the Braves refusing to meet Freeman’s demands, Freeman being interested in looking elsewhere, both, neither or other reasons we aren’t aware of, the deal just hadn’t gotten done.
By trading for Olson, the Braves avoided being the team standing alone at the end of a round of musical chairs, should they have waited for Freeman and lost him anyway. “[Braves president of baseball ops Alex] Anthopoulos felt he had to move on to ensure Atlanta entered the upcoming season with an elite first baseman,” as MLB.com’s Mark Bowman wrote after the trade.
Freeman has been so good for so long, possibly even on a Hall of Fame track, that it’s hard to imagine that you could replace him and not take a big hit on the field … except that’s exactly what the Braves have done.
Consider this: Freeman is a powerful lefty bat, considered to be an excellent defender. Olson is a powerful lefty bat, considered to be an excellent defender.
Freeman: .304/.402/.544 – 82 HR – 142 OPS+ – 11.7 WAR
Olson: .257/.354/.522 – 89 HR – 139 OPS+ – 11.6 WAR
Not terribly different, is it? Remember, too, that 2020, which was wildly out of character for each of them, just in different directions, is hard to weigh heavily the more we learn about how little a 60-game season can teach us. (Freeman was incredible, winning the NL MVP; Olson was miserable, working hard to rethink his approach entering 2021.)
What if we look ahead? Here’s how ZiPS projects them for 2022, as the second- and third-best first basemen behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Freeman: .294/.386/.512 – 29 HR – .898 OPS
Olson: .264/.366/.529 – 37 HR – .896 OPS
How about Steamer, another projection system?
Freeman: .291/.389/.512 – 29 HR – .901 OPS
Olson: .266/.368/.545 – 43 HR – .913 OPS
It's really not so different, is it? We should note that yet another projection system, The Bat, does prefer Freeman, which underscores that not all systems are the same, but the takeaway here is: They're both really, really good.
The shapes are different, to be sure. Freeman is a better all-fields shift-proof average hitter, while Olson has the edge in pure, raw power (which might serve him well, leaving the seventh-worst home run park for lefties for the 11th-best).
If Freeman is better -- which is a big if in our book -- it’s not by very much, because these are two of the three best first basemen in baseball. Except, of course, for the one aspect where they’re very different, which is ...
What if you ran the Braves, and you were approached with an offer. “I have a time machine,” the mysterious stranger tells you. “I can take Freeman, who hasn’t agreed to return yet, with the season three weeks away, and I can make him nearly five years younger. All you have to do is give me four prospects.”
That is more or less what’s happened here. Freeman was born in September 1989; he’ll be 33 this fall. Olson was born in March 1994; he’ll be 28 in two weeks. Given the similarity between the two players, the Braves have pulled off the neat trick of just acquiring a whole lot more years of prime Freddie Freeman, just in a different package.
For Olson, the eight-year deal is really six years of free agency on top of the two remaining team-controlled years; either way, it now takes him through age 35. This, for what it’s worth, aligns a lot more closely with the rest of the young, controlled Braves core. Ronald Acuña Jr. is 24, signed (if Atlanta exercises team options) through 2028. Ozzie Albies is 25, controlled through 2027. None of Ian Anderson, Austin Riley or Mike Soroka has seen his 25th birthday yet.
It is not, to be clear, that Freeman is over the hill, that there’s imminent danger of his collapse. There’s no such indication whatsoever. The thinking, then, is something like this: Over the next two years, the remainder of Olson’s team control, there’s not likely to be much difference in production between the two. After that, do you want Olson from 30 through 35 or Freeman from 34 through 39? That, it seems to us, is an easy question.
4) The cost per year
It’s difficult to talk about these things without talking about the dollars involved, and let’s make no mistake that if the Braves wanted to fulfill every last one of Freeman’s contract requests, they could have easily done so. Since we don’t know exactly what he was looking for, it’s not really possible to evaluate, though the report that indicated the Braves had offered “$28M-$29M per [year]” and it wasn’t done yet tells you a little about the neighborhood we’re talking about.
We do, however, know this:
And this, right here, is it. Olson is locked in for the next eight years, making approximately half what Freeman will in 2022, approximately 70 percent of Freeman in 2023, and then, for the duration of the deal, topping out at what Freeman already made -- which is considerably less than he will make, at nearly five years older.
5) The prospect cost
So it’s all gravy, right? Well, no. This doesn’t come for free. Nothing ever does.
“But,” you’re reasonably asking, “to do all this, the Braves had to give up four prospects. Good prospects. Is that better than just signing Freeman?”
In order to pull this off, the Braves did have to send C Shea Langeliers, OF Cristian Pache, RHP Ryan Cusick and RHP Joey Estes to Oakland. Langeliers, a nearly ready catcher, is the big prize here, as he was about to be Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect on the updated MLB Pipeline list.
Pache would have been No. 3, though there’s still a considerable question about whether his so-far-underwhelming bat will allow him to flash his elite glove on an everyday basis. (That the Braves were willing to include Pache, after not only starting him on Opening Day but giving him Andruw Jones's uniform number as his heir apparent, may tell you where they land on that concern.) Atlanta is still well-staffed in outfield prospects, with Michael Harris III and Drew Waters; it is easy to forget that Acuña Jr. is, again, just 24.
Certainly, it’s extremely unlikely that all four prospects will turn into productive Major Leaguers, but that’s the gamble being taken here. For the cost of whatever careers these four have, the Braves have turned their elite first baseman into a younger elite first baseman, who will cost less and be on the team longer.
We’ll admit, openly, that what we have not accounted for here is sentimentality. When they celebrate the 2021 World Series champions at Truist Park in April, it will be more than a little awkward not to have Freeman there. It'll be bittersweet for fans who have proudly worn the No. 5 on their back for years, who hoped that Freeman would be the rare player to spend an entire career with their team, who never thought that receiving Dansby Swanson’s throw to end Game 6 of the World Series was the last time they’d see him as a Brave. That can’t be quantified, and it can’t be invalidated.
We’d note, however, that Olson was born in Atlanta. He went to high school in nearby Lilburn, Ga. He “was very much a Braves fan,” he said on Tuesday. He’s not Freeman, because no one is. He’s the next-best thing, though -- and he has a chance to continue being that for a lot longer than the original version.