All offseason, fans have wondered: What are the Atlanta Braves going to do about locking up Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, their two young stars, to long-term contracts? Heyward was going to be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, Freeman after 2016.
Those questions were answered on Tuesday as Heyward signed for two years and Freeman for a reported eight years, $125 million. Let's do Heyward real quick here since Freeman is the bigger deal. It certainly made sense for Heyward to wait and not commit to a below-market, long-term contract. He missed time last year after an appendectomy and was hitting under .200 in early June before rallying to finish at .254/.349/.427. Heyward needs to bet on himself to stay healthy and have that big season we all predicted would come after he played so well as a 20-year-old back in 2010.
So he signs through his arbitration years and will hit free agency for his age-26 season. Even if he doesn't get better, he'll be a very rich man. Compare Heyward to Shin-Soo Choo, who signed a seven-year, $130 million deal that takes him from his age-31 through age-37 seasons. A seven-year deal for Heyward gets you his age-26 though age-32 seasons. Oh ... and Choo wasn't that much better than Heyward last season, even though Heyward played just 104 games. Baseball-Reference valued Choo at 4.2 WAR, Heyward at 3.6 WAR (he was 5.8 WAR in 2012). Choo got on base at a terrific clip, but Heyward is the better defensive player and produced in a tougher park for hitters. If Choo can get $130 million at his age, Heyward can easily expect to get $150 million or more.
The Braves did lock up Freeman, who at age 23 become the vocal leader of the club, the face of the franchise, and hit an impressive .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs to finish fifth in the National League MVP voting. It's a safe bet for the Braves. You get Freeman's age-24 through age-31 seasons, exactly the years you want for a first baseman who doesn't run well.
The question is more a baseball one: How good is Freeman? Was 2013 a true breakout season or one fueled by a high .371 average on balls in play (fifth highest in the majors)? Answer: It could be both. Considering his age, it could be real improvement. According to ESPN data, he had a 25.8 percent line-drive rate in 2013, up from 21.7 percent the year before. (Other sites have different percentages, complicating the analysis a bit.) One thing I like to check is how a batter does against fastballs. The best hitters kill fastballs, and that's what Freeman did in 2013, hitting .367 with 15 of his 23 home runs, up from .291 and 13 the year before.
So I'm inclined to think Freeman did mature as a hitter, even if his walk and strikeout totals were essentially identical to 2012. Maybe he won't hit .319 again, but it wouldn't surprise me since he also became so adept at going the other way. His hit chart shows a fair number of doubles in the left-center gap, and he hit five home runs to left-center or left.
In the past, I believe I've compared him to John Olerud. Physically, the comparison makes sense: A tall first baseman who is more of a 20-25 homer guy than 30-35. Olerud had a monster season in 1993 at age 24 when he hit .363 and another one in 1998 when he hit .354, but he was generally right around .300 with 90 to 100 walks and a .400 OBP. Freeman was worth 5.4 WAR last year; Olerud had those two seasons worth more than 7 WAR and three others above 5. If Freeman is the new John Olerud (minus 30 walks a year), that's still a heck of a player. And in today's market, $125 million for three pre-arbitration years and five years of free agency for that kind of player looks like a good deal for the Braves ... even if Heyward does prove to be the slighty more valuable player in the long run.
A final note: Some may end up comparing this to the Pirates in the early '90s, when they signed Andy Van Slyke and allowed Barry Bonds to leave as a free agent. You know, sign the popular white guy and let the black player leave. First off, Heyward isn't going anywhere yet. Second, the Pirates didn't just "let" Bonds leave. He signed a big deal with the Giants, a contract the Pirates probably couldn't afford, to return to the area where he grew up and to play for the team his dad played for. I wouldn't compare this to that; each situation is different, and we don't know what kind of offer Heyward may have turned down.