When the Braves and Dodgers faced off in Game 1 of the 2021 National League Championship Series, their respective starting first basemen were Freddie Freeman and Albert Pujols. When the two teams match up again this April, Matt Olson will be at first for Atlanta, and Freeman will be wearing Dodger blue, having joined Pujols in an ultra-exclusive group of stars who’ve had a long tenure with one team end immediately after winning a World Series. As the pennant-winning Braves, propelled in part by a .286/.444/.619 series from Freeman, celebrated beating the Dodgers after Game 6, no one would have imagined that the corner cornerstone would soon switch sides. Yet less than five months later, the Braves have replaced the longtime face of their franchise with a younger southpaw slugger, and the Dodgers have happily reached into their deep pockets to give Freeman a home, completing one of the winter’s most surprising superstar shuffles. Each link in this chain of transactions sounds sensible in isolation, but the end result—Freeman in another uniform—seems semi-inconceivable.
The Dodgers signed Freeman to a six-year, $162 million deal late on Wednesday night, the latest eruption of activity in a league that largely lay dormant during a 99-day lockout that began on December 2 and ended on March 10. MLB’s 30 clubs have compressed almost an entire offseason’s worth of transactions into the two weeks sandwiching the work stoppage, and this week’s chaotic catch-up, which has played out against the backdrop of the start of spring training, has produced several confounding developments. The A’s and Reds are tearing down rosters that would have qualified for the playoffs last season (or come close to qualifying, in Oakland’s case) had the new CBA’s 12-team format been in place. The Mets are outspending the Yankees; the ever-vexing Rockies outbid a bunch of contending teams to sign Kris Bryant; Seiya Suzuki is a Cub; Nelson Cruz is now a National Leaguer, a previously inconceivable outcome brought about by the universal DH. For each sentimentally satisfying reunion (Zack Greinke’s return to the Royals), there’s been a painful parting. The latter applies to Atlanta, which arguably got better (and definitely got cheaper) at the big league level but did so at a high price in prospects and a steeper cost in fan affection.
The 32-year-old Freeman has been a member of the Braves organization for nearly half his life. Drafted in 2007, he debuted in the majors in 2010 and became a regular the following season. Since 2011, only Carlos Santana has compiled more plate appearances than Freeman, and only Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, and Joey Votto have amassed more offensive value. Since 2016, when his power output leaped along with the rest of the league’s, he’s trailed only Trout in production at the plate and ranked in the top 10 among position players in overall value, melding a high-contact, high-average approach with above-average patience and power and enough mobility to have been a net positive in the field and on the bases. (He won a Gold Glove in 2018, when he also stole 10 bases in 13 attempts.) True to form, Freeman played in every game of the shortened 2020 season, and his hot two months nabbed him an MVP award, but his five other top-10 finishes better tell the tale of his long-term, metronomic excellence.
Last year, Freeman hit .300/.393/.503 with 31 homers in 159 games and 695 plate appearances, finished ninth in NL MVP voting, and won a Silver Slugger award. It was roughly an average Freeman campaign, and it could have been better; only three hitters with at least 400 plate appearances underperformed their contact quality by a bigger margin. As if to emphasize that there was more in his bat, Freeman posted a 1.045 OPS in 69 plate appearances as the Braves blitzed their playoff opponents. Only Enrique Hernandez, Chris Taylor, and teammate Eddie Rosario outhit him among players who made 40 or more postseason trips to the plate.
In addition to being one of baseball’s best players, Freeman has established himself as one of its most personable and self-effacing—“the friendliest man in baseball,” The New York Times’s Tyler Kepner called him. He’s famous for being a chatterbox at first base, for stealing the show while mic’d up during exhibitions, and for laughing at himself for getting owned by Anthony Rizzo. “I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said last October, adding, “He’s my rock. … He’s everything the Braves stand for.”
How did “everything the Braves stand for” come not to be a Brave? For want of a sixth season, seemingly. In 2019, Freeman expressed a strong desire to finish his career with the Braves, and he reiterated his stance during the World Series, when he said, “I think everyone in this room knows I want to stay here.” Last October, Freeman said he was “shocked” to be approaching free agency without a deal, and he would have been even more flabbergasted to learn that the one he’d soon sign would take him to L.A. Freeman was the last link to the Chipper Jones Braves, the Bobby Cox Braves, the John Schuerholz Braves. He was the one the Braves built around, the one they extended in 2014—in the highest-dollar deal the franchise had ever made prior to this week—and then retained even as they sent Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Shelby Miller, and other young players packing in a rapid rebuild.
World Series winners’ rosters tend to stay intact, sometimes to a fault, and Liberty Media’s February financial disclosures confirmed that the Braves turned a tidy profit in 2021. Ultimately, though, they wouldn’t fulfill Freeman’s wishes. In 2019, Freeman said, “If you play well, the years are going to be there,” and they were—but only five, not six, which seemed to be the sticking point. The Braves reportedly offered $140 million over five years, whereas Freeman was said to have sought $180 million over six years. Freeman, perhaps “rightfully frustrated” by the team’s failure to make him an offer earlier, held firm on his desire for a contract that would run through 2027, his age-37 season. Freeman didn’t offer his longtime team a discount, and his longtime team didn’t value his significance to the franchise and its fans highly enough to ignore its models and budgets.
Instead, Alex Anthopoulos pivoted to the trade market. On Monday, the Braves sent two top-100 position-player prospects (Shea Langeliers and Cristian Pache) and two other pitching prospects to Oakland for Olson—reportedly without informing Freeman first—and then extended their new first baseman a day later with an eight-year, $168 million deal. Maybe they didn’t do it gladly, but they did it all the same. The Dodgers took advantage, dangling that crucial sixth year to further strengthen a ridiculous lineup. And Freeman became only the third player in MLB history—after Rogers Hornsby in 1926 and Albert Pujols in 2011—to change teams after posting 3.5 WAR or more in a pennant-winning season with a team they’d belonged to for 10 or more seasons. Hornsby was a hard case who’d worn out his welcome with the team, if not its fans. Pujols, like Hornsby, was coming off his worst season, and the Angels offered him an exorbitant deal.
In the end, considering where the numbers landed, it is a surprise that Freddie Freeman is playing with a team other than the Braves.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) March 17, 2022
Freeman’s case is different: He hasn’t shown clear signs of decline, and he won’t be making that much more with his new team than he would have with the Braves. The difference between Atlanta’s and L.A.’s offers is slight, especially in light of the income-tax gap between Georgia and California. But like Pujols, Freeman may have expected—and deserved—a more obvious signal that he was still wanted.
The Braves fought harder to keep the chop than they did for Freddie Freeman— Richard Staff (@RichardStaff) March 14, 2022
Freeman was wanted by the Braves, but sentiment aside, it’s not hard to see why he wouldn’t have been wanted more than Olson. Olson, who’ll turn 28 later this month, is 4 1/2 years younger than Freeman. He was better than Freeman last year, and he projects to be better this year, with the gap only growing thereafter. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system anticipates that Olson will outproduce Freeman by more than 50 percent over the next six seasons, and because Olson was two seasons away from free agency when he signed his extension, he’ll come considerably cheaper over those years, before factoring in the substantial value of the prospects Atlanta gave up. The Braves are banking on Olson surpassing Freeman—or, at least, Olson and the players they’ll employ with their savings surpassing Freeman plus the prospects. To their credit, the Braves have already begun to reapportion their potential Freeman funds to other free agents, bringing back Rosario and adding Collin McHugh, Alex Dickerson, and Tyler Thornburg.
If the Braves regret their decision, it will be because Freeman, one of the best hitters of his era, defied the aging curve—and the specters of Pujols, Prince Fielder, Chris Davis, and Eric Hosmer—and held on to his skills well into his mid-30s. Olson has relative youth, a better glove, and a more powerful bat on his side, but his big league track record of being both great and durable, as Freeman has been for close to a decade, consists of two seasons, 2019 and 2021. Last season, Olson altered his training and swing in a way that helped him pull off the difficult feat of slashing his strikeout rate while maintaining his power, but he’ll have to prove he can sustain those gains, as past strikeout-cutters have.
In L.A., Freeman will be the third former MVP in the regular lineup—not counting Trea Turner, who led all position players in FanGraphs WAR last year. The only member of the Dodgers’ starting nine who hasn’t been an All-Star is Will Smith, who’s probably the best catcher in the National League. Several recent Dodgers squads have hit well—the 2020 championship team scored 349 runs in 60 regular-season games, which would extrapolate to 942 runs over a full season—but this batting order could be the best yet. Given the addition of the DH to the National League, the Dodgers could make a run at becoming the first thousand-run offense this century, but given their neutral park and the era’s less-than-extreme run-scoring environment, it would take a confluence of factors for them to come close: a full injury recovery from Max Muncy, a big bounceback from Cody Bellinger, and uncommon health throughout the lineup, a tall order for a unit whose members will mostly be well over 30.
Under Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers have sometimes spent to re-sign their own high-profile players (Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen, Chris Taylor) or to extend a recent trade addition (Mookie Betts), but they’ve never opened their wallet this wide to import a free agent. Player development has been the Dodgers’ biggest strength (especially on the offensive side), and Freeman’s $162 million contract almost triples the largest contract Friedman had previously handed to a free-agent position player, A.J. Pollock’s $55 million deal from 2019. For now, the Dodgers’ projected payroll of $272 million sits just slightly below the Mets’, though that number could fall if Trevor Bauer—who’s been on paid administrative leave since last July—is suspended for all or part of this season. Bauer is a big exception to the Dodgers’ pattern of mostly judicious investments: After 11 consecutive winning seasons, the past nine of which have yielded playoff appearances, their playoff odds, division-title odds, and World Series odds—further boosted by this week’s revelation that the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. may miss half the season—still lead the sport.
There’s a certain symmetry to the way this sequence of momentous moves went down. The Braves replaced one 6-foot-5, hard-hitting first baseman with another; the position isn’t the home of hairy monsters that it once was (though it rebounded a bit last year), but Freeman and Olson were its best bats to be had this offseason. The Dodgers, who watched shortstop Corey Seager sign with Texas on the eve of the lockout, replaced one left-handed-hitting, no. 5–wearing infielder with another. And both Olson and Freeman got to go home: Olson grew up in Atlanta rooting for the Braves, and although the young Freeman was an Angels fan, he’s from Orange County and has a house in Newport Beach (which is why he may have passed up bigger offers elsewhere to sign with L.A.).
Matt Olson on coming to Atlanta to join the team he grew up on:— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) March 15, 2022
"I watched Chipper, Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine all those guys... I was the kid in the stands at the #Braves game, so it was cool to check my locker out, see the jerseys, see the number, put this on. Really excited." pic.twitter.com/jahqfgobQn
Thus, it’s hard to call this an unhappy ending. This isn’t a case of a team taking a step back competitively instead of ponying up to pay a player, à la Boston dealing Betts or Cleveland offloading Francisco Lindor. The Braves chose one elite first-base bat over another, and they remain narrow division favorites with a payroll in line to be higher than last year’s. Winning helps fans forgive and forget prominent departures, and if Olson rakes, Atlanta loyalists will learn to like him too. Freeman got paid and got a gig close to home with a great team, and now a new fan base will watch and enjoy him. No one really loses a lot here—except A’s fans, that is. (Enjoy those Olson jerseys, season-ticket holders.) But Braves fans, and fans of baseball history, still missed out on something when the team and player parted ways.
Hornsby eventually returned to the Cardinals; perhaps Pujols will, too. Maybe Freeman will be a Brave again also—if not on the field, then via a symbolic, career-ending contract, a number-retirement ceremony, or a Cooperstown plaque. Even so, his legacy won’t be what it might have been before this week. Free agency forever raised roster-turnover rates, particularly for star players, a necessary, if lamentable, byproduct of the long-overdue demise of the reserve clause. As the recent retirements of Buster Posey, Ryan Zimmerman, and Kyle Seager reminded us, there’s something special about players who spend their whole careers with one franchise, even—or especially—in an era that conspires against their kind. We can strike Freeman’s name from that list, which we and he long believed he would join. It’s fine to feel wistful about what was lost, no matter how well it works out.
Thanks to Ryan Nelson for research assistance.