The Braves’ Good Problem

Last week, Grant Brisbee made the very salient point that the Atlanta Braves are essentially akin to a small-market team these days. Since the ballclub has stacked their team with homegrown talent, this has not been a glaring problem in years past, but this offseason we have seen them lose both Brian McCann and Tim Hudson. Which was bad, in a sense — the team has replacements at the ready, even if they might not be as good.

The real problem though — and it is no doubt a good problem — will come two-to-three years down the road. Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Kris Medlen are set to become free agents following the 2015 season, and the next season, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel (and Brandon Beachy) are also due to become free agents. It’s pretty unlikely that the ballclub will be able to keep all five (or six, if you count Beachy). So, who should they keep?

Looking at the team’s contract situation, let’s say that they can keep three of the five. That sort of feels right. They will have three $10 million-plus contracts this year: the Upton brothers and Dan Uggla. Uggla’s contract will mercifully end at the same point that that the first trio will be up for free agency. Heading into their respective free agent seasons, this is how old they will be:

Freeman: 2017, Age 27
Heyward: 2016, Age 26
Kimbrel: 2017, Age 29
Medlen: 2016, Age 30
Upton: 2016, Age 28

The first thing that sticks out is that these guys are all very young for possibly hitting free agency. Players that age don’t often hit the free-agent market anymore. If you go back to Keith Law’s top 50 free agents from November, only 12 were under the age of 30. Two of them were Asian international free agents, two others were ranked 47th and 50th, and one was a former Braves player (McCann). It just doesn’t happen that desirable players make it to free agency this young. So, before we start in, kudos to the Braves and their player development system for accruing such talent.

Speaking in absolutes is rarely a good idea when it comes to things that have yet to occur, and that is even more true in a situation where we are years removed from a necessary decision. So we’ll just go with pros and cons for now. And even though they don’t all hit free agency in the same year, we’ll treat them as the same, because realistically the Braves will have to decide who to keep and who not to keep well ahead of them reaching free agency.

Freeman
Pros:
— Durability. Freeman has played in at least 147 games in each of his first three seasons, and 93% overall. That’s always a good thing.
— Hard Contact. The more line drives a player hits, the better off he’ll be, and Freeman excels in this area. In his three full major league seasons, he ranks ninth among qualified players in line drive percentage (25.2%). Over the past two seasons, only Joey Votto and James Loney have roped a greater percentage of line drives than has Freeman.
— Defense. Freeman has always had a good defensive reputation, and last year that reputation finally matched up with the metrics, as he posted his first season with both a positive DRS and UZR.
Cons:
— Swing rate. Freeman has improved his BB/K in each of his full seasons, but last season his swing rate went up. He swung at four percent more pitches out of the strike zone, and 3.6% more overall. That wouldn’t be so bad necessarily, had his contact rate gone up in kind, but it didn’t. Freeman actually lowered his strikeout rate last year. This means one of two things — either Freeman is able to tow the line of swinging and missing more frequently but not actually striking out, or his luck is about to change. Given the fact that he hit .198/.265/.282 with two strikes last season, I’m going to suggest that it’s the latter.
— Power. Freeman’s ISO is still relatively middling for a first baseman. Last season, his .181 ISO was a mere five points above the league average for a first baseman. From 2012-2013, he ranked 12th out of 23 in qualified first baseman ISO. If you lower the qualification to 500 plate appearances, Freeman’s rank drops to 22nd, as players like Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli and Mark Teixeira jump over Freeman on the list.

Heyward
Pros:
— Youth. Seriously, players really don’t hit free agency this young these days. It’s kind of amazing that he could enter the market heading into his age-26 season.
— Defense. Heyward is one of the biggest plus defenders in the majors during his time in the Show. Since 2010, the only two players with a better UZR/150 than Heyward are Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado, and neither of them even have half the innings played that Heyward does (Arenado barely has one-fourth the innings played).
— Strikeout rate. Last season, Heyward cut his strikeout rate by nearly seven percent. Even if he doesn’t retain all of those gains, it wasn’t a total mirage. He swung less and made contact more. That’s a recipe for success, and it was borne out in his higher line drive rate.
Cons:
— Durability. Shoulder, neck, abdomen, foot, knee, thumb. Heyward can have a pass for the appendix, and again for fracturing his jaw on a hit by pitch. He really didn’t have any control over those things. But he still seems to come down with a lot of owwies. He’s failed to reach 130 games played in two of the past three seasons, and his health will remain a question until he strings a couple of full seasons together.
— Speed. Heyward’s speed vanished last year. His Speed Score, as calculated in these internet pages, dropped from 6.2 to 3.2. He followed up his one good season of UBR with one that looked a lot like his first two seasons, and his wSB dropped into the red. His stolen base percentage for his career is a less-than-optimal 68%, and last year he was only successful on two of his six stolen-base attempts.

Kimbrel
Pros:
— Filth. Most pitchers don’t reach pitch values of 10 or higher on one pitch. Kimbrel has come incredibly close to doing so in three straight seasons, and he did do it last season.
— Grounders. Over the past two seasons, Kimbrel has struck out nearly 44 percent of the batters he has faced. Of those who were able to put the ball in play, nearly 50% of them hit ground balls.
— Velocity. Kimbrel has not only not lost juice on his fastball, he’s actually gained a few ticks. That won’t last forever of course, but his decline might be softer as a result of his ability to maintain his velocity these first three seasons.
— Consistency. Kimbrel is the only relief pitcher to post at least 2 WAR in each of the past three seasons.
Cons:
— He’s a reliever. There are a very few relievers who have proved worthy of long-term extensions, so Kimbrel is fighting an uphill battle just by the nature of his role.
— Contact rate. Last year, batters were able to make contact off of Kimbrel much more easily than they had in the past. His contact rate was still one of the 10 lowest among qualifiers, and his strikeout rate was still one of the five highest. But Kimbrel was not head and shoulders above the rest of the game the way he was in previous seasons.
— Zone percentage. In three of his four seasons in the majors, Kimbrel has had a below-average zone percentage. Last year, he threw the fewest pitches in the strike zone yet. He doesn’t have the best control going, and if his K rate keeps declining along with his zone percentage, Kimbrel may just lose his edge.

Medlen
Pros:
— Control. Of the 86 pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched over the past two seasons, Medlen’s 5.2% walk rate is essentially tied for 10th-best.
— Deception. Medlen is able to live in the strike zone and maintain that good control because of his ability to consistently fool hitters. Last season, the only pitchers who were able to generate a higher percentage of whiffs per swing via the changeup than Medlen were Jarrod Parker and Stephen Strasburg. And there was a big gap between Medlen in third and Cole Hamels in fourth. Since the changeup is Medlen’s second-most frequently thrown pitch, that’s an important fact.

Cons:
— Injury concerns. Medlen has now tossed 337.1 innings since returning from Tommy John surgery, which means he is already nearing the end of his honeymoon phase. By the time 2016 rolls around, if Medlen hasn’t succumbed to a second Tommy John surgery, he’ll likely be very close.
— Velocity. Since 2008 (when PITCHf/x began stabilizing), there have been 445 pitchers who have been both 27-years-old or younger and have tossed at least 100 innings in a season. Of them, only 45 have failed to average 89 mph on their four-seam fastballs, and of those, just 21 have been right-handers. Here is that list:

Name Season IP vFA
Carlos Villanueva 2011 107.0 88.9
Kris Medlen 2013 197.0 88.9
A.J. Griffin 2013 200.0 88.8
Jeff Karstens 2009 108.0 88.8
Brian Bannister 2008 182.2 88.8
Jered Weaver 2009 211.0 88.7
Kevin Correia 2008 110.0 88.7
Micah Owings 2009 119.2 88.6
Kyle McClellan 2011 141.2 88.4
Carlos Villanueva 2008 108.1 88.4
Doug Fister 2010 171.0 88.3
Darrell Rasner 2008 113.1 88.1
Mike Fiers 2012 127.2 88.0
Josh Tomlin 2011 165.1 88.0
Dylan Axelrod 2013 128.1 87.9
John Ely 2010 100.0 87.3
Josh Collmenter 2011 154.1 87.2
Andy Sonnanstine 2008 193.1 87.1
Jeremy Bonderman 2010 171.0 87.0
Shaun Marcum 2008 151.1 87.0
Josh Geer 2009 102.2 86.1

A quick scan of this list makes it very apparent that it is not an enviable one. Aside from Medlen, Jered Weaver and Doug Fister are pitchers who one would consider signing to a long-term deal, though Weaver may be somewhat of a cautionary tale. The velocity on his four-seamer dipped under 87 mph last year, according to PITCHf/x, and probably not coincidentally, his ERA and FIP rose for the second-straight season (actually, his FIP rose for the third-straight season). Medlen will be as old when he hits free agency as Weaver was last season, so if that’s what Medlen’s future is, that’s probably not a good sign.

Upton
Pros:
— Lack of holes. Upton is pretty good at everything. He’s got a good batting eye, both his walk rate and swing rates are above average. He has good power as well. Both his isolated power and slugging percentages are above league average for a right fielder. His basestealing isn’t amazing, but he is over the 70% mark for stolen-base success, and over the past three seasons, his 13.1 BsR ranks 10-best in the game. He also hits every pitch well. For his career, he has positive values per 100 pitches on every pitch except the knuckleball, and he probably hasn’t seen enough knuckleballs for that to matter.
— Pain tolerance. While there are plenty of injury issues in his timeline, none of them kept him out of the lineup for very long. He played through a thumb injury in 2012 to the detriment of his statistics, and while the other issues have not been as severe, it seems likely that he has played through things that other players would not have. He has only missed 28 games over the past three seasons.
Cons:
Price. Of the five players on this list, Upton might end up being the most expensive, simply because he is already far more expensive. Upton will earn more than $14 million during each of the next two seasons, so it’s hard to imagine that he would accept an extension that paid him less than that. The Braves can certainly afford to pay him a little more than that, and he should remain that valuable, at least in the short-term, but in comparison to the other five players, it puts him at a disadvantage.

Taking the situation as a whole, it seems that as of right now, Freeman and Heyward are the two you would look to lock up first. You do what you need to in order to get those deals done, particularly with Heyward. From there, things get more murky. Upton probably will be worth keeping around, but the price may not be right for Atlanta. Kimbrel may be a luxury for a team that has consistently churned out quality pitchers for two decades, and Medlen’s velocity needs to be monitored. History tells us it will dip, and when it does, so too may his effectiveness. And finally, there’s Beachy. Thanks to his shoddy health track record, he doesn’t merit much discussion at this time, but if he proves capable of being both healthy and effective over the next two seasons, the Braves will have a difficult decision to make with him entering 2016 as well.

In all, this is a good problem to have. Every team wants to have this kinds of problem, and it’s a credit to the Braves front office that they are in a position where they may be forced to pick which of their young assets they want to lock up. Unfortunately for Atlanta, their now-more-obvious budgetary restrictions leave them less margin for error.




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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


42 Responses to “The Braves’ Good Problem”

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  1. Kris Medlen says:

    If I were the Braves I’d focus on Freeman and Heyward. I’d let Kimbrel and Medlen walk and then see what it takes to bring Upton back. My gut tells me the answer to that is too much.

    If the Braves can at bare minimum keep Heyward and Freeman, they should be just fine.

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  2. The biggest problem with Heyward is that he basically won’t sign unless he’s given 10/270 or something in that area. From everything I’ve heard he’s going to test the free agent market unless he’s blown away by an extension–he’s not going to settle for security.

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    • Jason B says:

      “he basically won’t sign unless he’s given 10/270 or something in that area”

      Yeah that’s…that’s not gonna happen. From the Braves or anyone.

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      • cthabeerman says:

        He’s already had one 6+ WAR season and has two more cracks at it before free agency. He’ll be a free agent at 26.

        You may be a little hasty in making that assertion.

        -C

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  3. Anon21 says:

    Good piece. As far as the prescriptions:

    “Taking the situation as a whole, it seems that as of right now, Freeman and Heyward are the two you would look to lock up first. You do what you need to in order to get those deals done, particularly with Heyward.”

    It does not look at all realistic that the Braves will extend Heyward. They were in discussions with him last season, and his attitude at that time was that he wanted to go to free agency, and that if the Braves wanted to prevent that, they would need to start paying him free-agent prices at an assumed 6-WAR level immediately. The Braves absolutely cannot afford to do that, and at this point all indications are that Heyward will be modeling another uniform in 2016.

    With Freeman, the situation isn’t as clear. The two sides aren’t close, but there is at least a baseline level of mutual interest in discussing an extension that isn’t there with Heyward. Seems like the Braves have worse-than-even odds of extending Freeman, but not much worse.

    I doubt the Braves will make a serious effort to extend Medlen, except maybe on a short-term deal. They prefer to develop new pitching rather than pay free-agent or near-free-agent prices.

    The one player who will be a very interesting extension case is Andrelton Simmons. The guy is going to be perennially All Star-level on the basis of his fielding alone, and I don’t know that we are still in an age of player evaluation where defensive production is going to get ignored when he comes looking for a free-agent contract. But it could hold down his arb payouts, which may give the Braves some leverage in extension talks. In some ways, Simmons is the most important extension candidate, because his astounding defense allows the Braves a great deal of flexibility to punt fielding ability at flanking positions, as they did with Chris Johnson in 2013.

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    • Surrealistic Pillow says:

      Indeed, most rational Braves fans have abandoned the idea of extending Heyward. It simply isn’t realistic given the Braves’ budget constraints and Heyward’s proximity to FA.

      I agree that an extension for Simmons should be the first priority. Beyond that, negotiations should continue with Freeman, and they should begin (if they haven’t already) to feel out the demands of Minor and Teheran with respect to buying out arb years and getting team options for a year or two post-arb, in the form of the Sale contract.

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  4. RMD says:

    After their arbitration raises, it looks like the Braves will hope for the best and break camp with their current roster. They still have the possibly to fill a need via a mid-season trade rather than the the possibility of having egg on their face if a free agent buy falters.

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  5. harpago17 says:

    Good stuff. My only complaint here is when you talk about Heyward’s injury history, you say you can give him a “pass” for the jaw and appendix, yet then immediately point out that he’s played more than 130 games only once the past 3 years. He missed a combined 57 days last year from the appendix and jaw, and ended up playing in 104 games. Had he not had those ailments he would have been on track for roughly 150 games, giving some time for routine off-days. If you want to hold the appendix and the jaw against him that’s fine, but it’s counter-intuitive to point out that he can’t control that, and then ding him for the time missed anyway.

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    • TKDC says:

      Yes, and if you give him that break, he’s basically only had one injury-riddled season, 2011, and then three seasons that were basically full, healthy seasons aside from the two freak occurrences last year.

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  6. TKDC says:

    Two points on the Medlen fastball velocity point. First, looking at the leader board, I see his velocity at 89.4 for 2013. I’m not sure what the discrepancy is. Second, this continues something of a disappointing trend on Fangraphs of selling a narrative by classifying a performance as one of ## below or above ##. If you want to compare 21 seasons, wouldn’t the 10 above and 10 below be a better list?

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    • Jason B says:

      Agreed; I think a group in which he is right in the middle (like pitchers with average FB velocity of 88-90) is *much* more representative than one where he is right at the very top below an arbitrary cutoff. In terms of FB velocity, he is more similar to someone averaging, say, 90.5 than he is to someone averaging 86.

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  7. Me says:

    I’d go ahead and lock up Simmons. He’d be my first priority. If that guy’s bat takes a step forward next season, his agent is going to be doing everything possible to get him to hit free agency, especially since we’re at a point in time where free agency has absolutely exploded due to all the tv money. If you believe in his ability to become a solid hitter, and I personally do, then he stands to make an absurd amount of money by hitting the market as an elite player at a premium position. This offseason could very well be our best bet to keep him long-term.

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  8. Me says:

    I thought it was odd that Brisbee didn’t mention the Braves will soon own a 60-acre development complex housing a brand new stadium and facilities that they plan to use 365 days a year. Basically, a miniature theme park. Seems to me that might be a source of some revenue, no?

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    • D says:

      I’m taking a wait-and-see approach on the Cobb County Braves until a traffic / mass-transit plan is laid out. As it currently stands, it seems less accessible than Turner for anyone not in Cobb count (those living north, east or south of ATL).

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      • Me says:

        Yea the traffic is going to be a nightmare if they don’t add transit. Either way the Braves are going to make a ton of money off this place. That’s the biggest reason they’re moving in the first place. I don’t like it, but it is what it is.

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  9. tullythomas says:

    Good article by Paul, but one glaring omission in this analysis is failure to correlate to information in Wendy Thrum’s previous article(s) on the growing effect (and disparity) of local broadcast revenues on teams’ balance sheets. She really emphasized the competitiveness hindrance to the Braves in being locked into for next decade one of the most miserly series of LB contracts in MLB. Hometown Heyward will be gone for greener (that is the “mean green”) pastures given the 125M+ that will be at issue. There is many that believe that this situation was a primary catalyst in the Braves moving 15 miles North to Cobb County, in chasing “other” revenue.

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  10. Grant says:

    #1 Heyward……..Defense, age, and on base skills alone make him a must. The injuries seem like fluke things. (If he gets a full season this year, he’ll be really expensive.)
    #2 Freeman……..Defense is good and his age should allow him to maintain the LD% for a few more years.
    #3 Simmons……..But not until he has another good season. It’d be pretty risky to sign a player based on their rookie year alone.

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  11. Shauncore says:

    If this were the MLB The Show I would just let them all walk and collect 6 FA comp picks in the draft.

    Sadly, this is real life.

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  12. Spud says:

    I’m as much a prospect hound as anyone but why can heyward demand top dollar and why does everyone love him? Defense? I haven’t watched a lot of Braves games but his numbers are pretty lame. Why all of this praise still?

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    • Anon21 says:

      trollolol

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      • Spud says:

        Hmmm, what numbers of his do you like? Low .300s OBP, .265 avg, babip chronically on the low side. 25 HR pace, diminishing speed/SB ability. Sure he’s still got a high ceiling but who’s giving him a monster deal? He hasn’t done anything but play a great right field…

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        • Antonio Bananas says:

          Because he only recently finished his age 23 season and has 2 high performing years.

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        • Harry says:

          i like his career 119 wRC+ combined with great defense and above average running. Anytime you have a guy who is creates value at all 3 phases thats a player i want on my team. he really is a 5 tool player

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        • cthabeerman says:

          When did .352 become low .300s OBP?? You can’t even use rounding as an excuse in this case.

          -C

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        • Spud says:

          I was looking at his last three years of .319, .335, and .349 OBP. I’m not counting his minor league stats. I don’t think it’s egregious to call that a low .300 … Anyway he’s clearly a guy you want on your team but the money and length we’re talking about seems like a ton for a guy who hasn’t done anything elite yet, and who seems a little injury prone.

          I see why people like him now. Thanks for the answers

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  13. Metsox says:

    Defense

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  14. Vlad the Impaler says:

    The Braves seem like a team on the bleeding edge of transition. My personal opinion is they should “ride or die” with this crew in 2014, see where that takes them, then trade off Justin Upton, Heyward, Kimbrel, and Medlen after the season.

    Their farm system is not very good right now at all, so trading those four should help re-vitalize the system and get the foundation for the next playoff bound crew.

    While those prospects develop, sign Simmons and Freeman to extensions as soon as possible, with Simmons getting a deal to cover at least his first 2 seasons of FA eligibility.

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  15. Garrett says:

    I know Heyward gets a lot of love on this site, but my priorities would be in signing Simmons and Freeman. I’m still trying to figure out all these sabermetrics, but based on actually watching the games, Heyward wouldn’t get my money in free agency. I’d also trade Kimbrel and try to get some return. He’s amazing, but we won’t ever be able to extend him (nor would we want to spend that type of money on a reliever).

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    • Steve says:

      So don’t sign Heyward because you perceive him as the worse player based on your un-analyzed and wholly incomplete visual interpretation of his play, without taking into account any advanced metrics that tell us more about just how good of a player Heyward truly is? Stupid.

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      • Garrett says:

        What a welcoming fellow you are! Stated that I was still trying to figure out the true merit of any of these stats. My “visual perception” comes from watching him play nearly 300 games, so I wouldn’t say that it is wholly imcomplete. I think he’s a very good player; there’s just no way the Braves should pay him the sum he will be asking for. I’d rather have Simmons and some of my young pitching than Heyward at this point in time. A lot can happen before his contract expires.

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        • Steve says:

          Heyward, in an injury-shortened, “down” year put up a 3.4 WAR and had a .344 woba. That’s not worth anything for ATL? He’s so young, he’s on the upward side of age curves. The only reason why ATL should not resign him is if he demands Pujols-like money which he won’t. But backing Andrelton’s rookie year over Heyward’s 16 WAR is pre-mature

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  16. Mike says:

    As a Braves fan, this entire discussion saddens and depresses me. I’ve long accepted that the Braves were never going to pay 10+ million a season for a relief pitcher so I should just enjoy Kimbrel while we have him. I kind of knew this was McCann’s last season as a Brave, but it still hurt. And I’ve always been excited by the prospect of three years of Justin Upton and thought asking for more was just being greedy. But knowing that we probably won’t be able to keep Jason Heyward, the guy who is supposed to be one of the cornerstones of our franchise, kind of kills my love for the game a little bit. Hell, these days the Yankees can’t even hold onto cornerstone players. I still love my team, but cheering for laundry saps a lot of my enthusiasm.

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    • Anon21 says:

      I agree. It’s going to gut me when Heyward leaves, but I’m trying to adjust my expectations now.

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  17. subtle says:

    I hate to be “that guy” but line drive hitting actually has an insignificant correlation from season-to-season. There are certainly exceptions out there but it doesn’t stabilize for a very long time. We’d be doing Freeman a disservice to assume he will hit line drives at this rate in seasons going forward.

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    • Steve says:

      Just how long do you think it’ll take to stabilize?

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    • Harry says:

      he has over 1600 career PAs and a career LD% of 25.1%. In 2012, he had a 26.0% LD% over 540 PAs. In 2013, it was 26.7% over 551 PAs. IDK how long it takes LD% to stabilixe but I would 1000+ PAs should do it.

      Based on the raw data FF clearly has some line drive hitting skills.

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  18. Reality says:

    Paul Goldschmidt signed for 5yr/$32M ($6.4M per) at the age of 25 with 764 career PA at the time.

    Anthony Rizzo signed for 7yr/$41M ($5.85M per) at the age of 23 with 680 career PA at the time.

    Freddie Freeman is entering his first year of Arb at the age of 24 and has 1908 career PA.

    He’s now only 3 years away from being able to hit Free Agency as a 27 year old. Nick Swisher recently signed for 4yr/$56M ($14M per) as a 32 year old. He has been mentioned on this site as a decent comp to Freeman for now.

    The time to sign Freeman for a Goldschmidt/Rizzo-esque deal was prior to 2013. The Braves missed the boat, unfortunately. He will wait out these next 3 seasons and get a fat deal in 2017.

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    • Anon21 says:

      The Braves tried to get on that boat last offseason, and Freeman said “I’ll talk to you in a year.” Then he went out and did 2013. Smart guy. It’s quite possible they can’t afford him at all now, but let’s not pretend this is a “Braves don’t know what they’re doing” situation, it’s a “Freeman knew what he was doing, and could not be forced to accept an extension” situation.

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