Recently here at WalkOffWalk, we’ve been attempting to put together a playoff team for the Atlanta Braves in 2018. I took the first stab at it and put together a more aggressive plan to improve the talent level of the team while sacrificing some of the club’s better prospects. Tommy followed that up with a more conservative approach by keeping all the major prospects and building a team around internal call-ups, minor trades, and veteran free agent signings. Ryan just dropped his own that includes a little bit of both. But regardless which of those plans you prefer, there’s a greater point to be made outside of just a fun exercise. The Braves need to have a sense of urgency about contending. They’ve got a ticking time bomb attached to this rebuild.
This isn’t a post on how the Braves organization owes it to the fans to put a contender on the field as soon as possible and if they don’t, fans will leave in droves. Although as a fan I’d love for my team to consider me and my loyalty when making decisions, the sad truth is teams don’t really have to consider the fan’s feelings. While some will swear off the team forever and some will even walk away from the team for a bit, usually the losing bit, front offices know as long as they eventually build a winner, the fans will come back. At least most of them. No, there’s a much more concrete reason Atlanta needs to be so urgent in wrapping up its rebuild. Freddie Freeman.
Freddie Freeman is the best player on the team, one of the best players in the game, an undoubtedly is the cornerstone from which the organization plans to build their empire. And he’s good enough to be that cornerstone. When other veterans and fan-favorites were being traded left and right and the team made it clear the future was more important than the present, Freeman remained. The now former GM, John Coppolella, famously wagered his right arm that he absolutely would not trade the all-world first-baseman, and though most of what John said and did is now under investigation, that proclamation remained true. They remain steadfast in building around Freeman.
And while that sounds like a perfectly logical plan, there is one glaring problem. The timeline doesn’t seem to line up. Most rebuilds take 5-6 years to complete. Usually 2-3 years to build back up your farm system and another 2-3 years to get those players to the majors and competing at a high level. Looking back on some recent rebuilds in Chicago, Houston, and Kansas City, this timeline holds up. Even looking at where Atlanta is in the process, the timeline holds up. Most teams don’t go from 90 losses to 90 wins in one season. If you let things develop naturally there’s usually a gradual build-up. 3 years into their rebuild and Atlanta has won 67, 68, and 72 games respectfully. With more of their high-end talent either in, or close to Atlanta now, we’ll probably start seeing bigger jumps in wins. Maybe 77-78 wins in year 4, 83-84 wins in year 5, and by year 6, a playoff contender. That’s a perfectly natural, perfectly normal rebuild. Tear it down is 2015, back to the playoffs in 2020.
But Freddie Freeman’s contract is up after the 2021 season. That seems like a long way from now but it really isn’t. That’s 4 years away. And really, you have to know what you’re doing with Freeman by 2020 because if it gets to 2021, and he’s now a one-year rental, all leverage and a large chunk of his value goes down the toilet. And you absolutely cannot just let him walk out the door for nothing in 2021. Big market teams may be able to get away with that but not Atlanta. Of course, an extension is always possible but remember, player salaries are about to go up. Guys like Harper, Machado, and the rest of the 2018 free agent class are about to reset the market for all players and you have to assume any extension is going to cost you market price. It’s nice to hope for a home-town discount but you can’t plan for it. If Freeman is still playing at this level, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, he could command 35-40 million per year which means he’s probably playing somewhere else.
So what does all this mean? Well for me, it means if you want a shot at contending with Freddie Freeman on the team, then the timeline needs to be accelerated. Aggressive moves need to be made to drastically improve the team’s talent level. I wouldn’t touch Acuna, Albies, Gohara or Wright but everyone else would have a certain level of expendability. I’d also quickly adhere to the concept of sunk cost. If you view these next 3 years with Freddie Freeman as precious commodities, then not one of them can spent with the likes of Matt Kemp or Nick Markakis on the team. There’s no time for that. If you have to eat money to move them, do it. If you have to cut them to move them, do it. The goal should be to build a playoff contender in 2018 and give yourself at least a 3 to 4 year window with your best player, playing his best years, on your best teams.
Some fans didn’t like the Chris Archer trade I made when building my playoff team but this is one of the main reasons I made it. Yes it dealt away some serious prospects but it also built a contender for the next 4 season at least. Imagine having Archer, Freeman, Acuña, Albies, Inciarte, Gohara, and Teheran to build around the next 4 years. What could they accomplish? Or go with a plan like Tommy’s or Ryan’s. The point is to not to waste the prime years of the core of this team.
Because it’s not just Freeman at stake. Julio Teheran’s contract is up in 2020. By 2020, Ender Inciarte will still be under contract but he’ll be a 30-year-old OF whose primary value is derived from his defense. The odds of him still being a 3 or 4 WAR player then are slim. Basically, the current core of this team doesn’t line up with the timeline a standard rebuild. Which means if Atlanta wants to win with them, they can’t keep operating a standard rebuild.
The other option of course is letting the rebuild develop naturally. Grow your wins incrementally, year by year and when you’re ready to compete, make your moves. In a vacuum, this is usually the best option. Don’t rush things. But this option comes with the stark possibility that the next time the Atlanta Braves field a playoff team, Freddie Freeman won’t be on it. Or if he is, it’ll be a 1-year window. And if he’s not going to be on the next playoff team you have to trade him for players that will. And as uncomfortable as trading top prospects makes Braves’ fans, it’s nothing compared to the idea of trading Freddie Freeman.
Atlanta has a choice. If they still want to build around Freeman then they can’t just let this process play out naturally. The timeline doesn’t work. It has to be accelerated and moves have to be made. If, however, they want to let the rebuild play out and build around the new core of Acuña, Albies, and Gohara, that’s fine too. Then you have to trade the current core for players that you can add that new group and build a winner from there. But the absolute worst thing you can do is continue to waste the prime of Freddie Freeman’s career on terrible teams. They can pick A or B. But they can’t pick C. It’s a tough choice and I don’t envy having to make it. But the clock is ticking.