Burning questions for Braves at first base in 2014
For the first time since trading for Fred McGriff in July of 1993, the Atlanta Braves boast an elite long-term option at first base. Since McGriff was sold to Tampa Bay following the 1997 season, capping off a five-year run highlighted by three All-Star appearances, the position has been a revolving door, featuring the good, the bad and the "How In The World Did It Come To This?"
Seventeen different players logged at least 200 plate appearances at first base for the Braves from 1998 to 2010 — the best being Andres Galarraga (1998, 2000) and Mark Teixeira (parts of 2007 and 2008); the lesser of the options being some combination of Scott Thorman, Wes Helms and, well, others that served their time without distinction — until Freddie Freeman took over the job full-time in 2011.
Now, the position is rock-steady, arguably the most stable one in the organization. So after his first All-Star appearance and a top-five finish in the MVP voting, what’s in store for Atlanta’s breakout star? Here are a few first base-related questions heading into the 2014 season:
In hindsight, Freeman’s emergence could not have come at a better time for a franchise looking to win its first division title since 2005.
The team suffered significant injury after significant injury — there’s a legitimate case to be made for Atlanta being the most unfortunate franchise in baseball last season in terms of the amount of games top players missed — but its first baseman was the unwavering mainstay: he played in all but 15 games, hit .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs and registered 4.8 wins above replacement (via Fangraphs).
In the 93 seasons of the Live Ball Era, only six other players in franchise history can claim an equal or better single-season WAR while listed as a first baseman: Earl Torgeson (1950), Joe Torre (1964-65), Felipe Alou (1965-66), Hank Aaron (1971), McGriff (1994) and Galarraga (1998) — with only Torgeson, McGriff and Galarraga playing at first full-time. Already, through just three full seasons, Freeman’s career WAR ranks 13th among first basemen in franchise history. It’s been that type of a rare find for the organization.
He attacked pitchers last season, often swinging and making solid contact early in counts like another top-tier NL first baseman (Joey Votto), and generally made good on hitting coach Greg Walker’s comments of Freeman being the most gifted hitter he’s ever coached. At 24, he has finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting and fifth in the league’s MVP voting in his first three seasons. While acknowledging a sophomore season in which his productivity saw a slight lull, in large part due to vision difficulties, here’s how that looks in terms of his OPS+ (where league average is 100):
With those numbers, Freeman now owns territory among the elites in the National League, particularly among his positional peers, including juggernauts in Cincinnati’s Votto and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Freeman may not be in that class, year in and year out (advanced projections certainly have his production falling off a bit), but he’s good enough to be the No. 3 hitter for most MLB teams for 150 games a season.
The Braves will need that productivity, too. They’ll need him to continue to improve on his plate discipline — a 10.5 percent walk rate and 19.2 percent strikeout rate were both career bests — replicate his power numbers and continue to punish opposing pitchers in two-out, "clutch" situations with runners on. For the first time in his short career, with the franchise’s former rock-solid bats in the middle of the lineup now either retired (Chipper Jones) or playing in New York (Brian McCann), Freeman will be asked to be the go-to run producer from Day One. The franchise certainly has bigger concerns this offseason, like how it can milk productivity around him from its corps of unproven or, to put it bluntly, disappointing.
There are very few sure things in sports. Injuries or slumps or any number of mitigating factors can throw everything off. But Freddie Freeman’s bat is one of the surest things the Braves have entering the 2014 season.
Freeman is under the Atlanta Braves’ team control for another three seasons on the cheap. He and a few of his other young teammates are currently locked in arbitration dealings with the club, but league rules stipulate he won’t draw near as much as he would on the open market, where a 24-year-old with his numbers would draw $90-plus million. But that window also serves as the tightening timeframe the team has to work with in order to lock up Freeman — and/or some of his other arbitration-eligible teammates — for the long-term.
This was a popular topic of discussion throughout the 2013 season, but nothing came to fruition.
The Braves have yet to finalize extensions with Freeman, Jason Heyward, Mike Minor, Craig Kimbrel or Kris Medlen. It seems unlikely they’d let that entire corps hit free agency, given the popular motto around baseball: Do Not Let Young Stars Walk. But it still takes two to draw up and sign a contract, and there are only a few more years of arbitration remaining for each player. The Braves have attempted to open up talks with Freeman and Heyward in the past without making any headway; nobody wants to leave money on the table.
As long as Freeman’s production remains steady, the idea of signing a long-term deal will only lose its luster as the dollar signs of an open market loom closer and closer. Still, the Braves have some time and will presumably continue to try — especially if there’s another top-five NL MVP finish on the horizon.
If you’re a fan of erroneous arguments, Craig Kimbrel, the top closer in baseball, should be at the top of the franchise’s extension wishlist. For those buying into logical arguments and conclusions (how many high-priced closer contracts have happy endings?), Freeman, along with Minor and Heyward, should be a top priority in 2014. The club appears to understand that. Middle-of-the-order bats and potential top-of-the-line starters are much more valuable to the organization going forward, by any stretch of the imagination.
Freeman certainly will not draw Votto money — the Reds superstar signed a 12-year, $251.5 million deal back in 2012 — but any deal he signs in the near future will be more lucrative than Goldschmidt, who inked a $32 million contract prior to his breakout 2013 campaign. So how much are the Braves willing to splurge? Or will they ride out the next three years and be forced to let Freeman walk following his age-26 season?
The club has some cap flexibility, and somebody other than Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton will eventually get paid serious money in Atlanta. Freeman’s a pretty safe option, if the Braves can get him to the table.
Advanced defensive metrics have been a welcome addition to baseball’s lexicon, with defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating (the two popular choices) providing a quick, quantitative tool for what the eye sees. Andrelton Simmons isn’t just the best defensive player in baseball … he led all players with 41 defensive runs saved last season. It provides validation.
But Freeman’s defensive abilities do not always translate into said metrics. In his first full season, despite the split-and-scoops and other various acrobatics around the bag, he cost the Braves two runs with the glove, according to DRS. It climbed into the positive in 2012, but it didn’t change the fact that watching Freeman play defense told a different story. He defends his position better than most, especially when it comes to fulfilling his position’s primary duty: fielding the ball off a teammate’s throw. He’s a two-way standout. And arguments to the contrary largely (thankfully) faded into the background in 2013.
Freeman logged a career-best seven defensive runs saved last season, fifth-best among all first baseman. He’s not Teixeira or Albert Pujols out there, but this part of his game should not be a concern going forward, especially if his bat continues to produce.