The Freeman Chronicles
Let’s do the cynical part first: There is every chance that for the next two seasons, new Atlanta first baseman Matt Olson will be every bit as good, and perhaps even better than, former Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman. It might not seem that way upon first glance — here are the basic numbers for Freeman and Olson the last three years:
Freeman: .304 average, 82 homers, 257 RBIs
Olson: .257 average, 89 homers, 244 RBIs
The almost 50-point gap in batting average definitely stands out. Freeman also won an MVP award and was a hero for Atlanta’s World Series champions last season while Olson mostly hit in Oakland solitude. Freeman is a beloved figure, a famously good guy, an admired clubhouse leader, an Atlanta icon. Freeman is what we would call in the baseball card world a “major star,” while Olson, at best, would be considered a “minor star.”
But, of course, baseball people, more of them all the time, don’t concern themselves with such things. The question for them is value, real value, and the truth is that when it comes to pure value, many things point away from Freeman and toward Olson.
Olson, who turns 28 later this month, is 4 1/2 years younger than Freeman.
Olson put up his numbers while playing half his games in the hitter’s dungeon that is the Oakland Coliseum. Atlanta is a good hitter’s ballpark.
While they are both Gold Glove winners, Olson’s defensive numbers are better than Freeman’s.
Again, Olson is 4 1/2 years younger than Freeman.
If you are making a cold value appraisal — which the Atlanta front office has become famous for doing — you choose Olson and don’t even think twice about it. Freeman is a 32-year-old free agent who will draw $30 million a year for the next few seasons. Olson is under team control for two more years and will get only what arbitration allows. And when you look at it this way you can certainly understand why the Braves unloaded their entire farm system to bring in Olson and send Freeman off without even a thank you. “It’s just business,” Michael Corleone insisted, and so it goes.
End of cynical part.
What Atlanta did here is terrible for the game, and if there was somebody really watching over baseball, they would publicly and ferociously tear apart the Braves for it.
I have a friend who is a big football and baseball fan, and he pointed out something the other day that I had not thought about. He likes the Bengals and he likes the Guardians, both small-market teams with owners who, to say the least, do not seem super-interested in spending a lot of money to build a winner.
But, he says, as a football fan, he simply doesn’t have to worry about losing superstar quarterback Joe Burrow. It just doesn’t even cross his mind. Burrow will be the Bengals quarterback for the foreseeable future and maybe even his entire career. You never know what circumstances will come up, but as a fan he feels a great comfort investing all of his emotions into Burrow, knowing that he’s not going anywhere.
Meanwhile, as a Guardians fan, he knew pretty much from the start that Francisco Lindor was too good and that Cleveland definitely would not keep him. The clock was always ticking. He could love watching Lindor play, sure, but he could not love Lindor, not in the same way, because the arrangement was always temporary.
But in baseball, it’s actually even worse than that. It’s not only knowing that Lindor would inevitably leave. At some point, the hardcore fan actually has to root for Cleveland to TRADE Francisco Lindor because otherwise they wouldn’t get any value for him when he did leave.
I think we all can agree: This stinks for baseball fans.
Atlanta fans invested a lot of emotion into Freddie Freeman. He has been with the club since iPhone 4, and his path to stardom has had its ups and down. He was, for his first five seasons, Steady Freddie, a .285 or so hitter with 20 or so home runs, he was an All-Star a couple of times, he seemed one of those guys you could win with but not necessarily one of those guys who would lead you to victory.
Then in 2016, the power arrived, the hard work he put in on his defense began paying off, and he jumped up into baseball’s upper echelon, where he has been ever since. He led the league in hits and doubles in 2018, led in runs and doubles in 2020 (when he won the MVP) and last year, after an extremely sluggish start (he was hitting .195 on May 5), he totally kicked in, hit .322/.406/.521 the rest of the way and ended up leading the league in runs again. And, of course, the World Series followed.
And along the way, he became Atlanta baseball in a way that transcends numbers and performance. He became today’s Chipper Jones, today’s Dale Murphy, today’s Henry Aaron.
You don’t hear many around baseball talk about stuff like that anymore. And, it’s funny, when I hear people complain about analytics in baseball, I think this is a big part of what they’re talking about. The game isn’t JUST about value. It isn’t JUST about wins above replacement.
Maybe Matt Olson will give you equal value of Freddie Freeman, maybe he even gives you a little more value, but no matter what he does HE IS NOT FREDDIE FREEMAN. He does not inspire Atlanta memories. His jersey is not in countless Atlanta closets. Kids in Atlanta — most of them, anyway — did not grow up with Matt Olson as their favorite player.
That stuff matters … a lot.
And so it’s terribly frustrating to see baseball become a game where that stuff doesn’t matter … AT ALL. The Braves will not be punished for making a cold-hearted business decision so they could wring out more profits. Far from it. Olson will be fine. The prospects may or may not pan out, but that’s down the road anyway. And Atlanta’s ownership group’s pockets gained a few extra tens of millions of dollars.
If they make the game significantly worse along the way, well, so be it.
And they did. They made the game worse. How does it serve baseball fans for Atlanta to not even make a serious offer to its most beloved player? And remember, Liberty Media is an ownership group that pocketed more than $100 million in profits last year. They pulled the team from Atlanta and tucked it away in the leafy suburbs. They have absurd deals with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies that … well, to call those deals “team friendly” is to call Elon Musk “moderately wealthy.*”
*Also “moderately wacko” works.
And even after all that, they jettisoned Freddie Freeman like he was nothing.
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If baseball had a commissioner whose job it was to oversee all of baseball and not just do the owners’ bidding, you would ask that commissioner how it serves the game for the defending World Series champions to act this way. It doesn’t, of course. You would hope said commissioner would be working both publicly and behind the scenes to remind everyone that baseball is supposed to be for the fans.
Maybe he would say something like, “While every team certainly must be given the freedom to run their own business, it’s a great disappointment to the commissioner’s office that the Atlanta Braves did not make a more concerted effort to sign Freddie Freeman. He is one of the game’s most iconic players, he represents the game with class and dignity, and I share Atlanta fans’ grave disappointment that he will not be returning. We encourage baseball’s owners to take into account those fans.”
Obviously, the commissioner’s office, as currently built, would never come close to saying anything like that.
Instead, there will be silence as Atlanta takes Freddie Freeman out of one spreadsheet column, inserts Matt Olson in his place, adds a few zeroes in the profits column, and tells the fans to live with it.
Yes, the Braves certainly will be fine.
And Freeman will be fine. He will go to the Dodgers or the Yankees or some other team — there’s a rumor that the Rays are even making a run at him — and he’ll get his money. He will undoubtedly be sad it worked out this way, but, you know, business.
Oakland, meanwhile, just does what Oakland does, what Oakland insists it HAS to do, which means it got to dump Olson’s arbitration price and get some talented kids who will play cheap for a while. So they will be just fine too.
And us baseball fans? I guess we’ll be fine too, most of us, because we’ve grown used to this sort of thing. We’ve learned again and again: Nobody does anything in baseball for us fans.
OK, I wrote this piece before I saw that the Braves have now signed Olson to an eight-year $168 million deal. I’m trying to process this thing — first of all, I have no earthly idea how they could have gotten a deal done this quickly. I mean the lockout just ended. The Braves were able to work out a trade with Oakland for Olson AND negotiate an eight-year, pre-trade contract with the player in, like, one day?
No way, right?
This suggests to me that the deal framework must have been more or less in place before the lockout. Which further suggests that Atlanta had basically decided to pass on Freeman before the lockout, still in the afterglow of the World Series . That’s some cold-hearted business dealing right there.
As for the contract itself, it certainly seems like Olson took significantly less than he might have gotten on the open market. He’s essentially getting $18.8 million per year for the next eight … and he was a $40 million FanGraphs money player in 2021. The Braves must have some seriously good negotiators, because they have an amazing knack for getting players to sign below-market deals.