For Braves fans, Monday should’ve been about welcoming a new franchise cornerstone. Instead, it was about mourning the loss of an old one.
The acquisition for A’s All-Star Matt Olson meant Freddie Freeman was as good as gone from Atlanta, and that notion overshadowed the actual trade that took place. Even Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos appeared to have a hard time swallowing the departure of Freeman, as he choked back tears while holding a press conference announcing Olson’s arrival and said the trade was “the hardest decision he’s had to make” in Atlanta.
Anthopoulos followed up Monday’s trade for Olson by signing his new first baseman to a franchise-record eight-year, $ 168 million extension Tuesday (topping the previous $ 135 million extension, given to Freeman in 2014) and in the process signaled that the Braves are moving on, whether or not their fans are ready to. He’s also giving Olson a shot at playing in his hometown nearly as long as his predecessor did — and with a core of teammates brimming with the potential to surpass the Freeman era’s team-wide accomplishments (six playoff appearances, five playoff series victories and one World Series title in 11 seasons).
The Braves almost had to do this after essentially discarding Freeman — the 2020 NL MVP who led this team to a championship just months ago — like he’s an old toy they didn’t want to play with anymore. It would’ve been very uncomfortable if they let Olson’s free agency creep up in similar fashion. It also would’ve been very foolish given all Atlanta relinquished to the A’s: four of the team’s top 15 prospects, including Cristian Pache, who once was the farm system’s most decorated product, and two former first-round picks — catcher Shea Langeliers (drafted ninth in 2019) and pitcher Ryan Cusick (pick No. 24 in 2021).
Olson seems to have the right attitude about filling Freeman’s shoes while playing first base for the team of which he grew up a fan. The 27-year-old told reporters, “Freddie is obviously an amazing player. It’s just not going to affect what I’m going to come here and do. I’m here to be Matt Olson. ” That said, it’s going to be hard not to compare the two.
Atlanta ultimately picked a younger, cheaper version of what they already had (though, yes, Olson possesses more power while Freeman hits for a higher average). Whether Olson will prove to be a new, improved version of Freeman over the course of the latter’s next contract is certainly up for debate, however. While Olson was better than Freeman last season by roughly one WAR, his track record of him doesn’t measure up. Olson’s .911 OPS last season, his best mark di lui over a full season, has been bested by Freeman four times over the last six years. The metrics do look more promising when using a metric like OPS +, which accounts for park factors, and it makes sense that Olson wouldn’t approach Freeman’s career statistics — he does have six fewer seasons under his belt di lui, after all.
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But the fact remains that Olson is not a sure bet to replicate last year’s All-Star effort, let alone improve on it. His closest comp about him on Baseball Reference through age 27 is Chris Davis. You may know him as the recipient of the most regrettable extension handed out in the 2010s. Like Olson, Davis was a one-time All-Star at this point in his career, a first baseman with loads of power, a walk rate above 10% and a career strikeout rate worse than the league average. Davis never cut down on the strikeouts, and, after his second 40-homer season at age 29, he signed a seven-year, $ 161 million extension with the Orioles … And quickly became one of MLB’s least valuable players in his 30s.
Olson has already shown some promising signs he won’t go down that path. For one, he nearly halved his strikeout rate last season to 16.8% by closing up a hole in his swing at the top of the strike zone after his 31.4% K rate in 2020 ranked in the bottom 10 of the majors. As a two-time Gold Glove winner, he’s also a far better fielder than Davis ever was. But while analysts praising the Braves at the moment have been quick to wave away Olson’s 2020 campaign as a 60-game anomaly, it seems they haven’t given serious thought to the possibility that his 2021 breakout di lui ends up being the outlier. The reality is that each of his last two seasons stick out as bookmarks on either end of the productivity scale, and that he’ll likely settle somewhere in the middle going forward.
We can say with near certainty that Freeman is not yet on the precipice of the productivity plateau. He has proved to be one of the sport’s most consistent hitters, and, as a sweet-swinger with a high contact rate, he should have at least a few more solid years to come, with a rather high floor. His baseline of production was a good fit in Atlanta’s lineup alongside streaky sluggers such as Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Adam Duvall. Can we really say that about Olson, who batted below the Mendoza line in 2020? That was obviously the bottom of Olson’s barrel, but the fact that Atlanta ponied up roughly the same amount of cash for him as it would’ve taken to retain their beloved World Series hero (and parted with four of their best prospects for the privilege) is still a rather sad indictment of the state of affairs at Liberty Media, the team’s corporate owners who raked in $ 568 million of revenue from the Braves last year.
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In the latter part of this decade, the last couple of days may make Anthopoulos look like even more of a visionary than he did after remaking Atlanta’s outfield on the fly at last season’s trade deadline. Olson may yet have his best years ahead of him in the hitter-friendly Truist Park. And by saving roughly $ 9 million per year with Olson’s average annual value of $ 21 million instead of Freeman’s reported asking price of $ 30 million per year, Atlanta has a little more wiggle room on its payroll for years to come — some of which it used Tuesday to sign reliever Collin McHugh for two years and $ 10 million. Fresh off a World Series title, Atlanta is taking the long view rather than going all-in on the next few seasons. Further helping the Braves’ cause are the ridiculously cheap contracts of Albies and Acuña, who are under team control through 2027 and 2028, respectively.
Those team-friendly deals should let Atlanta stay active on the free-agent market and maybe even keep some other members of its core such as Dansby Swanson (a free agent next offseason), Max Fried (under team control through 2024) and Austin Riley (under team control through 2025). Then again, Braves fans were just taught never to get too attached to anyone.
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