Braves finally have long-term security at first with Freeman deal
FEB 05, 2014 6:41p ET
ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman leaned into the microphone for emphasis, his voice dropping to a whisper.
At just 24, the reporter asked during Wednesday's press conference at Turner Field, could the Braves first baseman have expected an eight-year, $135 million contract at this stage of his career? Freeman called it an "honor" and "humbling," and said it was "impossible to imagine."
Then, in that aforementioned dropped tone, which was preceded by a long drown-out pause. He let loose a huge grin, saying, "But I'm happy."
The personality, with more than a touch of a big kid, has seen Freeman become synonymous with hugs. He gives them out pregame and in celebration and in his first tweet after reaching his new deal included the hashtag #HugLife.
After signing the biggest contract in club history -- which covers his three arbitration-eligible seasons and the first five he could have become a free agent and which surpasses the seven-year, $90 million deal Chipper Jones got in 2000 -- Freeman and the franchise have made certain those hugs will continue to doled out in a Braves uniform.
They've also made certain they'll have stability at first base Atlanta hasn't seen since Fred McGriff was traded to the expansion Devil Rays after the 1997 season.
From 1998-2010, the Braves had 12 different players start at first on Opening Day, a revolving door of Andres Galarraga, Ryan Klesko, Rico Brogna, B.J. Shurhoff, Robert Fick, Julio Franco, Adam LaRoche, Scott Thorman, Mark Teixeira, Casey Kotchman, Troy Glaus, with only LaRoche ('05 and '06) opened the year at that spot in consecutive seasons.
Then came Freeman, and when he takes the field on March 31 in Milwaukee, he will be the first Braves player to start four straight openers at 1B since McGriff, who did so from '94-97.
"I think when you look at what Freddie has accomplished in his first three years here, I think there was no doubt in our minds that we had found our first baseman not only of the present, but of the future," said general manager Frank Wren. "He just continues to get better and I think that was our focus as we looked at our team going forward; he can be a key component of that and we wanted to make sure that he's here for a long time."
That future includes the Braves' 2017 move to their new stadium in Cobb County. Freeman's deal, which runs through 2021, will see him play the first five seasons in that park and locking him up was part of the team's plan as the look toward that transition.
But Wren stressed that insuring Freeman is part of the long-range outlook doesn't mean they won't be able to do the same with any of the other players who make up their young core. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons won't be arbitration eligible until 2015 and Jason Heyward was signed Tuesday to a two-year, $13.3 million contract that buys out his final two years of arbitration.
"We looked at a comprehensive plan," Wren said. "It wasn't focused on keeping one player, it was focused on keeping a team and keeping a team and a keeping a competitive that we can go forward into Cobb County and beyond. ... This is a comprehensive plan, it isn't just about Freddie, although this is one of the first big step."
Drafted in the second round in 2007 at 17-years-old out of El Modena (Calif.) High School, Freeman made his big-league debut at 20.
He was solid in his first two full seasons, hitting .282/.346/.448 in '11 and .259/.340/.456 in '12, but it was last year in which he had his breakthrough, with a .319/.396/.501 campaign that included 23 home runs, 109 RBIs. He was second in the majors with a .443 average with runners in scoring position (.443), was second in the NL in batting, earned his first All-Star nod and a fifth-place finish in the NL MVP voting.
"There's still a lot more that we've got to see out of him," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "Before this is all said and done it's going to be contract that is going to be well worth it. His numbers are going to keep getting better and better. Last season he set out to drive in 100 runs and he did it."
In becoming the second-youngest player to ink a $100 million deal -- trailing only Albert Pujols, who was 24 years, one month and four days when he signed for seven years and $100 million on Feb. 20, 2004 -- Freeman will face a whole new set of expectations.
But he says a nine-figure deal won't change his approach or his mindset, because that's not why he given a contract that pinpoints him as the face of the franchise going forward.
"I had a conversation with Frank a couple of days ago and he said it best 'They gave me this contract for a reason, not to go out there and prove ... just go out there and be the kind of player I already am and to go out there and just try to get better," Freeman said.
Coming one year after the Braves signed outfielder B.J. Upton for five-year, $75.25 million, there will little doubt among the Braves brain trust that their young first baseman could handle the long-term deal.
"One of the things we were looking at was ... the right timing," Wren said. "Has the player established himself well enough that this won't affect him one way or the other? This was the perfect timing for us."
Seemingly headed for an arbitration hearing due to the Braves' "file and trial" strategy (Freeman filed for $5.75 million, while the team offered $4.5 million), Wren called the first baseman in late January, telling him there were going to begin negotiations with his agent, Victor Menocal of Excel Sports Management.
"I think as we got closer and the days went on, you could feel it coming closer and closer and it heated it up the last couple of days and I was getting really excited. It's a team I just want to stay with," Freeman said.
Still, it didn't feel real until he his dad, Fred, arrived at his home last night from California.
"I knew he made that trip for a reason," Freeman said.
He sat at a podium alongside Wren and Gonzalez, with his father and fiancee Chelsea Goff, whom he will wed Nov. 22, in the front row. Amid the talk of pressure, expectations and his progress, Freeman let slip what he's going to do with his new deal. "The first thing I've go to do is pay for a wedding," Freeman quipped.