Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Braves Extend Heyward, Freeman

The Braves are smart to bet on their young talent 
The Atlanta Braves had a mostly quiet winter until yesterday, when they committed almost $150 million to two of their franchise centerpieces--Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman.

The lion's share of that money is going to Freeman, who received an eight-year, $135 million contract extension that is the longest commitment the Braves have ever made to a player, topping the six-year, $90 million deal signed by Chipper Jones in 2000. It is also the most expensive on an annual basis, beating B.J. Upton's five-year, $75 million agreement. Freeman's extension will keep him with the Braves through 2021--his age 31 season.

The two-year pact with Heyward will cover his 2014 and 2015 (age 24 and 25) seasons at a cost of at least $13.3 million, with additional performance and award bonuses that could push his 2015 salary higher.

It's interesting how drastically different those contracts were since both debuted in 2010, are essentially the same age (Heyward is a month older), and have very similar career numbers so far:

Heyward: 2,170 PA  489 H  99 2B  73 HR .259/.352/.443  115 OPS+  18.4 bWAR
Freeman: 1,908 PA  481 H  93 2B  68 HR .285/.358/.466  123 OPS+   9.3 bWAR

(They have also each made an All-Star team and were NL Rookie of the Year runner-ups: Heyward in 2010 and Freeman the year after).

Though Freeman is the better hitter (but not by much), Heyward's been almost twice as valuable because he runs well and plays a great right field. All of Freeman's value is tied up in his bat, which is better than Heyward's but not enough so that he can compensate for Heyward's advantages in defense and baserunning. As an all-around player Heyward is clearly superior to Freeman.

So if Heyward has been twice the player that Freeman has, then why did Freeman get a contract that run six years longer and pays ten times as much as Heyward's?

The answer is timing. Heyward is coming off a disappointing and injury-plagued campaign. An emergency appendectomy and fractured jaw (courtesy of this pitch from Jonathon Niese) combined to limit him to just 104 games--a career low--with the former necessitating an early season DL stint that undoubtedly contributed to his slow start (.142/.283/.246 with two homers and eight RBI through June 1st).

Heyward rallied to bat .297/.376/.500 the rest of the way, and his final batting line of .254/.349/.427 was right in line with his career figures. Even with those disastrous first two months, Heyward was still worth around three and a half wins and showed signs of improvement, such as trimming his strikeout rate from 23.3 percent in 2012 to 16.6 percent--the best mark of his career--in 2013. He also bumped his walk rate up from 8.9 percent to 10.9 percent, which helped produce the second best OBP of his career.

So based on his strong finish to the season, Heyward looks like a good bet to rebound in 2014 (assuming good health) and could perhaps be ready to take the leap to superstardom that's been expected of him since he burst onto the scene in 2010. Steamer projects better things to come in 2014, expecting Heyward to be worth close to five wins and hit 21 home runs with a .367 wOBA and 135 wRC+. I'd say that sounds reasonable, maybe even a bit conservative.He's about to enter his prime years and should prove to be a massive bargain over the next couple seasons, especially if his career continues on its current trajectory (the top two similar batters through his current age are Jack Clark and Barry Bonds).

So whereas Heyward did not live up to expectations in 2013, Freeman exceeded his by a fairly substantial margin. Freeman finished fifth in the NL MVP voting after what was easily the finest season of his career to date, one in which he smashed 23 home runs, drove in 109 and batted a robust .319/.396/.501--all career highs. He also set personal bests in hits (176), walks (66), and total bases (276) in addition to posting the best walk and strikeout rates of his career, a performance that was worth approximately five wins.

Steamer predicts more of the same from Freeman this year: 23 home runs and similar rate stats. It's probably wise to expect some decline seeing as how his BABiP was .371 last year, which was the fifth highest mark in the majors and isn't likely to be repeated given Freeman's lack of speed.

But outside of some batting average regression, there's no reason to expect that Freeman will fall off in other areas. Whereas Heyward has alternated good years with bad years, Freeman has been remarkably consistent in his first three full seasons. Working backwards, he's played 147, 147 and 157 games and smacked 23, 23 and 21 home runs. His 2011 and 2012 seasons are virtually indistinguishable from each other, and while his raw OPS shot up by about 100 points in 2013 his counting numbers pretty much remained the same.

It's fitting, then, that Freeman's best comp at his present age is Eddie Murray, who of course was known as Steady Eddie. He's also earned flattering comparisons to Orlando Cepeda and John Olerud. If Freeman's career plays out like theirs did--landing him in Cooperstown or not far from it--then the Braves are going to get plenty of bang for their buck.

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