Choosing the Braves' future on 8-year value

The decision to sign either Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward or Craig Kimbrel - or even other players like Mike Minor, Andrelton Simmons or Julio Teheran - to a long-term extension probably didn't come down to which player they liked most. Extension decisions usually aren't so cut and dry. Players have different demands at different times according to different on-field outcomes, and teams have different views of different players at different times.

 

But what if it really came down to which one player from the Braves' young core deserves a long-term extension the most? It's basically a question of which current, young Brave without a long-term extension will be most valuable going forward.

 

For this exercise, I'm whittling it down to Freeman, Heyward, Kimbrel and Minor for the sake of service clock concerns. All four have at least two years of service time, and while Simmons should join this conversation in the very near future - maybe even next year - he isn't quite at two years yet.

 

I've already hashed out Freeman's value. His deal averages out to almost $17 million a year, but around $20 million a year for the free agent years. Considering he was nearly a 5-win player last year and has shown the ability to maintain a high BABIP based on an above-average line-drive rate, it's not unrealistic to assume Freeman will remain a 3-5-win player through the duration of the contract.

 

Freeman's average annual salary is just a million or two more than other recent first baseman deals with similar production. Freeman's 2013 numbers largely ranked in the top five among MLB first basemen, and as I've written a few times, he's a clear second-tier guy at the position. That kind of production warrants an average annual amount in this ballpark through his prime years. The $20 million a year during the free agent years of the contract is also reasonable when considering what he could get on the open market in three years.

 

Both Steamer and Oliver project Freeman's 2014 to be pretty similar to last season, each totaling between 3 and 4 wins. Project his WAR to be a little on the low end through the contract, and he should be worth 28-30 wins, which would cover the value of the deal when considering inflation. Take what you want from WAR, but this seems like a pretty reasonable assumption.

 

Heyward is not easy to peg because his seasons have been so up and down. He had a tremendous rookie year, his sophomore year was average at best, his third year was arguably MVP-level, and last season was very valuable until he broke his jaw.

 

Nagging injuries have been a concern with Heyward since his minor league days, especially his lower half. But, for the most part, his major league injuries haven't been nagging. Other than a thumb sprain and shoulder inflammation, the rest of his major injuries have been an emergency appendectomy and the fractured jaw from a hit-by-pitch. You can't put this against him when considering injury risk in the future.

 

On the other hand, Heyward's ability to rebound from slumps or swing adjustments has been average at best. He has a lot of moving parts and a ton of shifting weight in his swing, so it requires good timing, and he doesn't have a timing mechanism to speak of. I think he will always have his moments where he has to figure things out, but the production is usually there at the end of the day.

 

If you balance out his three most productive seasons, it averages to almost 5 wins a year. This might seem a bit extreme considering what he produced in 2011, but if he can stay on the field for a full season, it's a very real possibility every season. That equals 40 wins over the course of eight years, which is more than Freeman.

 

So will Heyward be worth more than Freeman over the next eight years? If he stays on the field, he's certainly capable of being more valuable than Freeman, thus making Freeman's extension more valuable under Heyward's name.

 

The problem is, you have to take into account volatility, and Freeman just seems like the safer bet. He has a cleaner swing that sprays the ball well, and he doesn't fly around the field; he's only been on the disabled list once so far. Basically, Heyward is capable of being more productive than Freeman, but Freeman seems safer; "seems" is the key word.

 

Kimbrel should be a little easier to shoot down based on his innings. He has averaged around 68 innings a year the past three seasons. His ridiculous 2012 season when he had a 1.01 ERA and struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced produced a 3.3 fWAR. This pretty much means the best a closer can ever do is a little more than 3 wins in a season. It actually dropped to 2.2 fWAR despite more innings and a 1.21 ERA last season.

 

WAR isn't the best way to evaluate a reliever, but it's an indication of the amount of value a pitcher who throws 60-80 innings is worth over the course of a season. Starters who throw 180-200 innings with decent results will be worth more because they have a greater effect.

 

Also take into account the Braves can't afford to sign 60-80-inning-pitchers to more money than those who throw far more innings. For a team that can't miss on these types of franchise-altering deals, it makes sense to give this type of money to a player who will play more often and be more productive.

 

It seems so extreme to say, but if Kimbrel can maintain around 3 wins a season, he can produce around 24 wins through the extension. This really isn't that far behind Freeman's projection. But it makes no sense for the Braves to offer eight years to a closer. One, relievers are extremely volatile and can deteriorate in the blink of an eye, making them the least-attractive investment. Two, a reliever's WAR can fluctuate quicker than any position, and there's no true, accurate way to determine their worth based on wins. The Braves thrive off building successful bullpens with cheap pieces, and it's best they stay the course.

 

An eight-year contract is too much for a pitcher, even more so for a 26-year-old Minor. He would be 33 at the conclusion. You don't want to get tied up with a 30-something-year-old pitcher on the back end of an eight-year deal.

 

It's tough to peg Minor's future value because he just had his breakout season in 2013, worth 3.4 fWAR. If he maintained around 3 wins, he'd also be worth 24 wins over eight years, which is close but still doesn't hold up to Freeman or Heyward's standards. Minor might be capable of a little more per season in his prime, but he's a true No. 2-3 arm who produced a 3.21 ERA in a breakout season at 25 years old. That's really all one can ask for from him through his prime.

 

Teheran and Simmons shouldn't apply because they're at 1+ years of service time, and an extension would be more about capping their controlled years than buying out free agent years. Both are already getting publicity about that type of extension, and it should be explored right away. But just to be clear, this is why I'm not including them in this post.

 

The most future value from the current core of 2+ years of service time comes down to Freeman or Heyward. The latter is capable of producing more wins over an eight-year extension, but Freeman appears to be a pretty safe bet to cover the cost. If it came down to which player I want on the team for the next eight years, I can't go wrong with either, but I might feel safer with Freeman.

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