Guerry Clegg commentary: Rewards of Freeman's contract outweigh the risks

February 8, 2014 

Baseball is a game of risk and reward. Every decision the manager or players make has a potential payoff and consequence.

Building a roster is no different. The financial risk the Atlanta Braves just took on first baseman Freddie Freeman is obvious. They have committed to pay him $135 million over eight years.

Freeman could get hurt like Bruce Sutter.

He could contract vertigo like Nick Esasky.

He could buckle under the pressure of trying to live up to an enormous contract -- the largest contract in franchise history -- like BJ Upton.

He could fail, or maybe just refuse, to adjust to pitchers who have figured him out -- like Dan Uggla.

But locking up Freeman now was a smart investment. Failing to lock up their best player for the long term carried an even greater risk. Freeman already is a three-year veteran and one of the best hitters in baseball. It's easy to forget that he's only 24 and still getting better.

Two years from now, Freeman might have become too expensive for the Braves to keep. He will be 26 and just reaching his prime. If he merely holds steady, Freeman's market value two years from now could be so high that they'd have to cut ties with other players reaching their earnings peak. If he improves, as he should given his age, he could become unaffordable even giving the Braves a home-team discount.

All of that is just the risk assessment.

The rewards are almost unlimited.

Players like Freeman don't come along often. He has Chipper Jones-like hitting ability and Dale Murphy-like character. He is, in every sense, a franchise player. Freeman led all major league first basemen last season with a .319 batting average and was third in RBIs with 109.

The only thing keeping him from being one of the top five hitters in baseball is his relatively modest power. But he ranked 10th in home runs with 23. Part of that is due to his unselfish approach with runners in scoring position. He would rather line an opposite field single or drive the ball into the gap to score the runs than try to hit the ball into the parking lot.

But power also comes with experience. Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt improved from 20 homers in 2012 to 36 last season.

Freeman is above average defensively and has Gold Glove potential if he can reduce his errors.

As good as he is, Freeman cannot carry the team by himself. And, going back to an earlier point, that is what makes this deal so good for the Braves. It leaves them room within the budget to retain more of their emerging young players. That's critical because four years from now, this could become a very expensive roster even if BJ and Justin Upton and Uggla are off the books.

Heyward will be a free agent in two years. He is one break-through season away from earning a contract similar to Freeman's. Injuries and inconsistency have held him back. But he's capable of being a .300/30-homer/100-RBI kind of player and is probably the best defensive right-fielder in baseball.

Shortstop Andrelton Simmons and catcher Evan Gattis could become two of the best players at their positions. There's always a demand for quality starting pitching, so Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and/or Julio Teheran could command hefty contracts. And that doesn't even address Craig Kimbrel, already the best closer in baseball.

All of that is a problem to be dealt with down the road. It will be a good problem because it will mean those players will have matured into some of the best in the game.

Freeman already has achieved that status, so keeping him a Brave for eight years is a comforting thought. The reward far outweighs any risk.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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