Guerry Clegg

As franchise leaders go, there’s no one more valuable than Freddie Freeman

As the lead in the National League East hangs in the balance between the top two — and maybe only two — contenders, it may seem a bit out of line to focus on one player.

That is, until you dig deeper.

Regardless how the Atlanta Braves showdown series with the Philadelphia Phillies turns out, one man deserves a special recognition. Here is a hint. He does not have a $330 million contract. Nor does he have more strikeouts than hits, and he’s not the universal target of boos wherever his team travels.

In fact, his contract is a relative bargain by today’s major league baseball standards. He’s not even the highest paid player on his team for the season. So that eliminates Josh Donaldson.

It’s far too early to speculate whether Freddie Freeman’s numbers will be worthy of National League MVP consideration. Stronger statistical cases can be made for Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers, although if you look at the home/road splits for Yelich and the post-April stats for Bellinger, Freeman’s numbers begin to look more impressive.

Let’s check back in on the numbers around Labor Day.

For now, let’s just ponder the words. Most Valuable Player. Let that phrase sink in.

Never mind just the National League. Is there any one single player in all of baseball more valuable or more important to his team than Freeman? Let me help you out a little bit. The answer is no.

Mike Trout is recognized as the best all-around talent in the game. Those fixated on WAR (wins above replacement) especially love Trout. But it’s hard to recognize Trout as the “most valuable” when his team just treads water from one year to the next. Boston’s Mookie Betts hasn’t been quite as stellar this season as he was last year. Houston has a lineup full of All-Stars.

Of course, Freeman is not the only reason the Braves won the NL East or that the Braves surged back into the division lead on the strength of a 22-10 run after getting swept by the Dodgers in LA.

Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies have reemerged as dynamic players. Rookie Austin Riley continues to come up with big hits. Dansy Swanson has been clutch in the field as well as at the plate.

No, Freeman can’t do it alone, as we saw during those lean rebuilding years of 2015-17.

But make no mistake, when determining how the Braves have developed into a playoff contender seemingly for years to come, the discussion should start with and circle back to Freddie Freeman.

When the Braves started their complete tear down and rebuild, many questioned whether Freeman had the personality to become the team’s leader. His quiet, friendly and humble nature made this a legitimate question at the time.

At the time.

But the personal growth of Freeman may be as impressive as his development on the field. Go back to 2016. The Braves fired manager Fredi Gonzalez after an abysmal start and promoted Brian Snitker to finish out the season. That is when the team, albeit under a different roster makeup, began to show its personality of grinding out every pitch and every game. Shortly before the season ended, Freeman took it upon himself to approach management and make the case to bring Snitker back for 2017.

Since then, Freeman has been unafraid of voicing his thoughts to management on how to make the team better. It’s not so much that he’s trying to play general manager. He’s just trying to hold them accountable and make sure they do everything within their power and budget to improve the team.

Not once has Freeman ever hinted of renegotiating his contract, which runs through 2021. Nor has he even tried to put pressure on management to save some room in future budgets for a better deal. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Here’s Freeman in an interview with earlier this year:

“This is my 13th year in the organization, and I love it here. I’m comfortable here. I’ve made the money. I now just want to end my career here. … don’t want to go anywhere else. I don’t.”

So this series notwithstanding, the Braves’ future is bright. There are many reasons why. But they all start and end with Freddie Freeman.