While watching the Cardinals underachieve against the Atlanta Braves recently, I was struck by just how dire the Braves’ roster really is, and how the rebuilding project that was originally expected to be shooting for a 2017 target has apparently morphed into a much, much longer-term multi-stage overhaul, one without a currently-perceivable good or even achievable end. The last time Atlanta went through a period of reconstruction like this, William Tecumseh Sherman was the impetus. That’s a Civil War joke, folks. Look it up.
Also, the jokes don’t get any better the rest of the way. And yes, the two-drink minimum still applies.
The thing is, the Braves tore down what they had (which, by the way, didn’t seem too very bad at the time), back in the 2014-15 offseason, coming off a sub-.500 season that, frankly, felt like an aberration. Heading into 2014, they were coming off 94 and 96 win seasons, respectively, had Julio Teheran and Alex Wood just beginning to come into their own, the best closer on the planet, and a young nucleus of positional talent that included Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, the good Upton brother (whichever one that was at the time), and Freddie Freeman. So that’s the best defensive shortstop in the game, the best defensive right fielder in the game, the failed-to-meet-perhaps-unrealistic-expectations-but-also-kind-of-underrated-but-also-also-kind-of-overrated 3-4 win Justin Upton, and the two-years-into-his-breakout Freeman, who had just put up a 4.2 win season in 2014, following a 5.0 win season in his coming out party of 2013.
Sure, the 2014 season was kind of a drag in certain ways — B.J. Upton was bad, Ervin Santana did that thing where you expect him to be good and he fools you, Dan Uggla finished collapsing into a puddle, and Chris Johnson already shouldn’t have been a major league starting anything — but the underlying core of the team seemed very solid. Plus, the Braves had managed to lock up several of those young players (with the notable exception of Jason Heyward), to very team-friendly deals in the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays model. So to see Atlanta suddenly change direction, decide the fundamentals of the organisation were bad, and begin cleaning house in dramatic fashion was, to put it lightly, a big surprise.
Since that time, the Braves have made some very smart moves, with the Dansby Swanson/Shelby Miller swap perhaps deserving some special note, though fleecing the Diamondbacks under Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart doesn’t seem to be all that tough. In general, however, Atlanta seems, rather than moving smoothly from teardown to rebuild to contention, to be further tearing down, like a building implosion site where for some reason the new property owners have decided that before they can put up a new office complex they must first salt the earth. Atlanta has moved on from virtually every quality player they had two short years ago — and in a few cases, already moved on from the guy they moved on to — with one very notable exception.
That exception, of course, is Freddie Freeman.
And while I was watching the Cardinals disappoint like a prom night dry hump playing Atlanta, I got to thinking about the time when it seemed like the Redbirds might trade for what is now the Braves’ one remaining good player.
Of course, we all remember what actually happened that offseason; the Cardinals, fresh off an NLCS loss to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants, suffered a huge blow to their future when Oscar Taveras was killed in a car accident. The organisation was obviously left with tons of questions about what had happened and why, but they were also left in the more immediate future with a huge hole in right field. Ultimately, they traded for Jason Heyward, who slid into right field and changed the fortunes of the position overnight, and then watched as Heyward left for Chicago after last season.
At the time, though, there were rumours to the effect that the Cardinals were looking at a Brave, but it wasn’t Heyward. Rather, the thought was that the Redbirds might be targeting Atlanta’s extremely young and newly-signed first baseman. Some of it was probably wishful thinking, fed by Cardinal fans drooling over the prospect of having a four win first baseman under a very reasonable contract until 2021, but there was also some real scuttlebutt that Freeman might be the target from all the usual rumour mongers.
Looking back now, it’s easy to see that Heyward was, hmm. I wanted to say the path of least resistance, but that sounds like I’m damning the deal with faint praise, and that’s not what I mean to do. Heyward was the cleanest fit for the Cardinals’ roster, the best combination of player quality, opportunity, and organisational need. He was a neater fit than Freeman would have been. He was also, almost certainly, a bigger swing in production than the first baseman would have been.
In 2014, the Cardinals’ right field situation was a disaster. Between Taveras’s rookie struggles, Randal Grichuk’s surprising cromulence, and the ghost of Allen Craig’s eerie wails and grounders to short, the Cards received right around negative two wins in aggregate production in right field. In 2015, Jason Heyward put up a six and a half win season in right. It’s probably a bit simplistic to say the team gained eight-plus wins in value from 2014 to 2015 through the deal for Heyward, but it’s also not completely inaccurate.
In comparison to the right field debacle of 2014, the first base position seemed relatively inoffensive at the time. The production from first wasn’t great, but it was the first year of the Matt Adams as starter experiment, and he was something like a league average player over there. He missed a little time due to injury, and saw a pretty big drop in power compared to his partial 2013 campaign, in which he slugged seventeen dingers in less than 300 at-bats. The defense was better than expected, the plate discipline was quite bad. He didn’t strike out a ton, though, and so reached base at a more or less acceptable rate.
The upgrade from Matt Adams and his pre-arb salary to Freddie Freeman and his team-friendly (but still less friendly than none of the moneys), contract would have been far smaller than the upgrade from the shitshow of right field in 2014 to Heyward in 2015. There was the thought that Adams might still have further upside than he had yet fully shown (oops), and would have to be moved if Freeman were brought in. (Actually, he probably would have been part of the package going to Atlanta.) Randal Grichuk didn’t look like a sure thing in right field, either. (Jury’s still out on that one, actually.) There were far more moving pieces in a Freddie Freeman acquisition than the plug and play, round peg round hole Heyward pickup.
Since that offseason when the Cardinals picked up a 25 year old Atlanta star (but not the one we briefly thought was most likely), Freeman has continued to be basically what everyone thought he was. He was hampered by injuries in 2015 (primarily an oblique strain), but was still worth 3.4 fWAR in 481 plate appearances. So far this year, he has 487 plate appearances, so almost the exact same number, and has been worth 2.9 fWAR. Considering he got off to an horrifically slow start this season (his OPS was .569 on the 24th of April), that level of production is quite an accomplishment.
What’s interesting about Freeman in 2016, though, is the way he’s gone about producing his value. He’s become more of a pure slugger, with the highest ISO of his career, but also the highest strikeout rate by far. He still walks a good amount — 10.7% this season — but that’s fallen a bit from his 2014 patience peak. The queerly high BABIPs he’s posted the majority of the time from 2013 on is in full effect this season, as he’s sporting a nifty .350 mark, after posting figures of .371, .351, and .321 the last three years. Overall, his line this season of .275/.363/.501 is good for a 127 wRC+. He’s a plus defender at first, with four straight seasons of positive UZR numbers at the position. He perhaps feels a little less well-rounded this year than in the past, considering the power and strikeouts spike, but still, this is a player who does a little bit of nearly everything, has no real holes in his game, and can seemingly be counted on at this point in his career to offer solidly above-average production at the first base position.
So I found myself during the Atlanta series watching Freeman, and watching the Cardinals’ own first base situation (for the record, I’m not complaining about Brandon Moss, who has been certifiably awesome to watch this year), and wondering how things would have worked out differently had he been the real trade target instead of Heyward. Obviously, the Cardinals would still have the player they traded for, but they wouldn’t have had the draft pick that turned into Dakota Hudson. Matt Adams would not be on the team, in all likelihood, and it’s tough to say Moss himself would be either. Obviously, the emergence of Stephen Piscotty has softened the blow of losing Heyward, but it would still be a real boost to the team to have him patrolling the outfield, at least defensively.
Freeman, right now, is about one month shy of his 27th birthday. He came into the league before he turned 21, scuffled his first two seasons, and then broke out. Since that breakout, he’s been worth 15.5 wins above replacement in roughly three and a half seasons’ worth of playing time. He’s signed through 2021, on a contract that gets expensive before next season. Beginning in 2017, he’ll make $20.5M, $21M, $21M, $22M, and $22M over the last five years of the deal. Considering I can’t see the Braves’ window for contention beginning until 2018 at the earliest, and the fact that their corporate ownership seems determined to make the club as unlikable as the Marlins, I could easily see Freeman being on the block after this season, in spite of the organisation denying such a thing could ever come to pass.
So here are my two questions for you to ponder this morning, citizens of VEBonia: one, knowing everything we know now about how the Shelby Miller/Heyward trade worked out, are you happy with the deal, or would you have preferred some other swap that would have brought Freeman to the Cardinals (potentially at a higher cost)?
And two, while Freddie Freeman alone wouldn’t move the needle to the tune of four or five wins over current options, much less the eight win swing Heyward represented at the time he was acquired, there’s every reason to believe Freeman will probably be a four-ish win player going forward, at least for awhile. Knowing all that you know today about where the Cardinals are, where they’re going, and what the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation are, would you want him this offseason? And if the answer is yes, how much would you be willing to give up to bring in a five-year solution at first base?