This off-season has been one of wait-and-see. We’ve waited for the lockout to end, without much speculation on what would happen next. Then when the lockout ended, there was no tidal wave of signings like we get in the NBA when the offseason floodgates open. Teams have had to slowly do their work.
The Tampa Bay Rays have been in on a few players who made big moved thus far, having made competitive offers for 1B Matt Olson and 3B Matt Chapman, both part of the Oakland Athletics teardown, and also pursued Japanese star OF Seiya Suzuki who is reportedly signing a five-year deal with the Cubs.
All three moves could have felt very Raysy, but there’s one rumor that persists that’s completely alien: a Tampa Bay Rays pursuit of 32-year old first baseman Freddie Freeman.
Here at DRaysBay we are more accustomed to parsing out why the Rays might have interest in a fringe reliever or platoon player or prospect. We aren’t accustomed to writing lengthy analysis on one of the better players in baseball.
Rumors have the Rays offering up a six-year deal for Freeman with a value up to $140 million:
This rumored contract trounces the modern Rays previous record free agent position player signing of first baseman James Loney, who signed for three years and a total of $21 million. Freeman projects to earn more than $21 million per year.
That dollar amount appears to be the going rate for top flight players on multi-year deals this off-season. Matt Olson’s contract extension with his acquiring team — the Braves, who are moving on from Freeman for a younger name — is a $22m AAV. Meanwhile, Kyle Schwarber is signing at $20m annually in Philly.
As an aside: The Braves might have found a suitable alternative, but it’s hard to imagine their decision to move on from the most valuable position player on a World Series winning club, who had been with the team for 12 years.
From a fan perspective, he should have had a lifetime deal in Atlanta, as the free agent cost to retain Freeman shouldn’t be materially different. Previously, Paul Goldschmidt signed a five-year, $130 million deal in 2019 with the Cardinals, which is a $26m AAV, so Atlanta traded reputational damage for a player 3 years younger and $4m AAV cheaper.
Freeman would make any team he joins instantly better, and supplant most entrenched first basemen across the league, with the true exceptions being Olson and Goldschmidt, and with an argument to be made for Joey Votto, who has a $22m AAV. Many other top first basemen, like Max Muncy or Pete Alonso or Vlad Jr., could and should pick up other positions to make room for a name like Freeman.
Just how good has Freeman been at the plate? He’s one of nine batters who have put up a wRC+ over 140 with a minimum of 1,000 plate appearances over the last three seasons. This includes a bonkers run in the shortened 2020 season where he earned MVP honors posting a 186 wRC+.
In five of the last six seasons he has hit at least .300 only coming up short by hitting .295 in 2019, and over the last two years Freeman has lowered his strikeout rate from near 20% to around 15% while maintaining a strong 12% walk rate, which helps his longterm projection despite already being age-32.
Freeman would add an impact to any lineup and the Rays high powered lineup is no exception.
With the quality of the player aside, there are other why’s for the Rays to be in on Freeman.
One is the same old song-and-dance the Rays have gone through in previous seasons, making runs for top free-agent names like Marcell Ozuna or Justin Turner, which at least prevented a post-season rival from getting a bargain on a plus name. Of note: it’s possible that Boston has entered the Freeman sweepstakes to try the same tactic against the Rays.
The second why is the need for a true upgrade. If the Tampa Bay Rays ran the same team out in 2022 that won 100-games and the AL East in 2021, no one would bat an eye.
The Rays have a platoon of Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz at first base, and their contributions continue to buoy the Rays roster at first base despite a profile the rest of the league might not value in the same way as the Rays.
Combined, projections like Steamer suggest Choi and Diaz should offer the Rays something in the range of a 115-125 wRC+ bat, but Freeman might push the Rays into the 140 wRC+ range at first base, given the player’s history. With the Rays failing or choosing not to retain Nelson Cruz at DH, it’s worthwhile to pursue the strongest bat possible to keep a similar quality of team on the field.
So, will the usually cost-conscious Rays pull the trigger on their third-ever nine-figure deal for a position player (with the previous examples being extensions of Longoria and Franco)?
If history is our guide, the Los Angeles Dodgers must remain the favorite, but with the new CBA and the additional national television revenue streams (thanks, Apple!), it’s possible the Rays may finally be in position to spend a little bit more than they have in seasons past.
Signing Freeman would almost certainly push the Rays payroll over $100 million for the first time in franchise history, and would also likely be followed by some trades to trim payroll as well — again, given team reputations. But at the same time, in the greater landscape of baseball, a nine figure payroll is a reasonable sum to stay competitive.
Unless the Rays are prepared to finally spend prospect capital to land a top trade target (e.g. Jose Ramirez), spending cash might be in the best interest of the franchise.