Atlanta Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman is having the best season of his career and looks poised to lead Atlanta into the next phase of their rebuild.
It’s no secret that the Atlanta Braves are in rebuilding mode. General Manager John Coppolella has placed a “for sale” sign on almost every veteran player of value. Since Atlanta’s second half collapse in 2014 the team has traded Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Melvin Upton Jr., Shelby Miller and an assortment of other veterans.
Coppy’s MO has been out with the old, in with the new. And also, frequently trading with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Exchanging veterans for prospects isn’t new, but the comprehensive nature of this rebuild has been controversial and is accompanied by thoughts that the Braves are tanking.
To Coppolella’s credit he hasn’t traded everyone. He has chosen one player from the core of that 2014 team to serve as the foundation that Atlanta will build around. That player is first baseman and brand new dad Freddie Freeman.
Despite being surrounded by lesser talent, and a slow start to his season, Freeman is having arguably the best season of his career. If the Braves weren’t one of the worst teams in baseball he would likely be a fringe MVP candidate in the National League.
Through 144 games Freeman is batting .296/.393/.556 with a career-best 30 home runs and 78 RBI. His .556 slugging percentage would be a career high, as would his .261 isolated power and his .394 wOBA.
His previous career high in homers was 23 in 2012 and 2013. He’s also pounded 39 doubles and is on pace to pass his career high of 43 from the 2014 season.
Freeman’s power jump has been the biggest improvement to his game. He’s always had a reliable hit tool and a decent walk rate, but this season he’s a legitimate power threat. He’s making less contact as his strikeout rate is up to 24.1 percent, but the trade of contact for power has made him a more valuable hitter.
If this is who Freeman is as a hitter going forward, the Braves have a legitimate MVP candidate on their hands. Likely never quite good enough to win it, but the Braves will take this level of production. Especially given the lack of power hitters on their major league roster and in their system in general.
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He’s been better than ever with his glove as well. His seven defensive runs saved rank 4th best in the NL for first basemen.
The eye test and defensive metrics haven’t always lined up for Freeman, but this season it appears like he’s at least been a slightly above average defensively. Braves fans will argue to the death that his scoops have saved many an Atlanta infielder from an error.
Freeman hasn’t seemed to let this rebuild hamper his play. At 27 he’s probably ready to play for a World Series contender (what player isn’t?) but he seems to understand the front office’s vision and is willing to be a leader as they make this difficult transition.
In an article from February 2016 by David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Freeman expressed a belief in the direction the franchise is headed:
"“I’m OK with the moves. I’m obviously going to miss Andrelton and Shelby a lot. Definitely going to be different not seeing Simba (Simmons) roaming short this coming year. But I hope he continues becoming a superstar with the Angels. The Diamondbacks got top-of-the-rotation stuff with Shelby (Miller). Not looking forward to having to face him. But me personally, this offseason’s moves made everything come full circle. We got a lot of top prospects back in the trades and I’m looking forward to seeing them in spring training. We have some young guys that could be making an impact with us this year, and in my opinion it’s an exciting time to be a Braves fan because I think we are going to be good soon – and for a lot of years to come.”"
The Braves will complete their move to SunTrust Park next season with an eye on returning to their winning ways of the 1990s. Freeman will do his part, but he’s going to need help.
Dansby Swanson looks ready to contribute at shortstop, but it’s unfair to expect him to be great right away. Ender Inciarte, Mallex Smith, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis make up an intriguing quartet of outfielders that each bring something a little different to the table.
How Atlanta’s new manager sorts out that situation will be interesting. Much of that depends on the play of Kemp and whether or not he gets into the kind of shape the Braves want him to be in.
The rest of the infield and the starting rotation (other than Julio Teheran) remain a mystery. 2017 will probably be better than 2016, but a playoff run is questionable.
At the very least, Braves fans can count on Freddie Freeman providing plenty of highlights to keep them entertained in their shiny new ballpark.