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The case against signing Freddie Freeman

Freddie’s one of the best hitters in baseball, but how long can that be expected to last?

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Hot take: I don’t think the Yankees should sign Freddie Freeman. OK, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s rewind a bit. As we all know, the Yankees chose a plan of inaction during the free agent signing bonanza that preceded the lockout. Consequently, they will face numerous competitors in a mad dash to shore up rosters from the pool of remaining free agents if and when MLB and MLBPA hash out a new deal. They may have missed out on Corey Seager and Max Scherzer, but there’s still a handful of premier players available on the market, including perhaps the best hitter of this year’s free agent class, Freddie Freeman.

However, Andy Martino of SNY appeared to pour some cold water on the Freeman-to-the-Yankees rumors last week. After sharing his skepticism over the Yankees’ willingness to part with top prospects in a potential trade for Matt Olson, Martino threw doubt on the notion that the Yankees would hand out another mega-contract this winter with Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton on the books and Aaron Judge’s free agency fast approaching, explicitly naming Freeman as a casualty of this payroll-conscious mindset. But then came this report from Jon Heyman on Saturday:

So what are we to make of these contradictory claims from MLB insiders? Is it all just idle speculation to fill a fallow period? At the very least, it got me thinking about a potential Yankees pursuit of the 2020 NL MVP and 2021 World Series champion. Did I want the Yankees to sign Freddie Freeman? The more I thought about it, weighing all the different factors, the more I found myself leaning no.

Before we get into the reasons, I owe Freeman some obligatory (and deserved) appreciation. Back in December, Jesse compiled a thorough analysis of what makes Freeman such an attractive free agent target, so I’ll keep this brief. Since Freeman’s first full season in 2011, only 12 players have a higher wRC+ and only 8 hitters have accrued more fWAR. Narrowing it down to first basemen, Freeman ranks fourth and third in those respective categories. He hits to all fields with power and is an above-average defender. His Statcast profile is consistently a sea of red.

On top of all that, Freeman is also a proven playoff competitor, slashing .293/.418/.566 with 7 home runs and 18 RBI over his last couple postseasons (141 wRC+ in 2020, 169 wRC+ in 2021), leading the Braves to their first World Series title in 26 years. In short, he’s been a top-10 offensive player in baseball.

The $100 million dollar question is, how long can that be expected to last? Chet Gutwein of FanGraphs and Matt Hartzell have assembled comprehensive analyses updating MLB’s aging curve, and drawing from both pieces, it appears that offensive decline accelerates rapidly after the age of 30. Freeman is entering his age-32 season, and though one would be justified in pointing out players who have defied the aging curve and remained productive into their late-thirties, you can count those players on your hands and toes, whereas you would require an army of digits to enumerate the players who fell off a cliff around Freeman’s age.

In fact, the Yankees are quite acquainted with one such player. They handed DJ LeMahieu a six-year, $90 million contract in advance of his own age-32 season, after a 195-game stretch in which he was one of the more productive hitters in baseball. LeMahieu’s production promptly took a nosedive back to his career norms, and the Yankees may already be regretting his re-signing. Granted, LeMahieu and Freeman’s cases are inexact matches, as Freeman was a premier hitter his entire career and LeMahieu may have been injured in 2021, but given the reports that Freeman is seeking double LeMahieu’s deal — six years, $180 million — that changes the calculus as well. The idea is that LeMahieu and Freeman front-load production in the first years of the contract to soften the blow of the tail end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees were once bitten, twice shy in that regard.

We actually have a convenient quartet of first basemen against which we can compare a prospective Freeman signing. Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt each signed multi-year, nine-figure deals that kicked in after all had turned 30. Pujols and Cabrera are the poster children of bad contracts for first basemen on the wrong side of 30. After signing his deal, Pujols plummeted to a 105 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR/650 player, while Cabrera sits at 112 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR/650 since his extension began. On the other hand, Votto and Goldschmidt offer a glimmer of hope. Votto grades out at 142 wRC+ and 4.2 fWAR/650 after his extension kicked in while Goldy’s at 130 wRC+ and 4.1 fWAR/650. I can’t say that I love coin-flip odds over a contract of that magnitude panning out.

Speaking of Freeman’s reported contract asks, let’s return to the point that Martino made about the Yankees’ pending decision on Aaron Judge. As good as Freeman is — and even if we were guaranteed he remains at that level — if given the choice between signing Freeman or keeping Judge in pinstripes, I choose the latter 100 times out of 100. Judge means too much to the franchise and fanbase to let him walk, even for a player of Freeman’s ilk.

“But Peter,” you might say, “shouldn’t the Yankees keep Judge and sign Freeman?” To which I would reply, yes. However, as the Yankees have shown us time and again in recent years, keeping payroll in check trumps all other roster construction concerns, and the team is only committed to addressing needs in half measures. They traded for Giancarlo Stanton and didn’t address other holes on the roster. They signed Gerrit Cole and didn’t see to other weaknesses again. There’s no reason not to believe that they could keep Judge in the Bronx and then call it a day.

And should they continue to levy these artificial payroll constraints upon themselves, there are far more pressing areas of need than first base. If by some miracle, ownership approved a Judge extension and another big signing, I’d much rather they spend that money on Carlos Correa or Trevor Story, given the actual lack of a shortstop on the major league roster.

So in the end, it’s not that I don’t want Freddie Freeman on the Yankees. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball and would make the team instantly better. It’s that signing Freddie Freeman only makes sense after locking Aaron Judge up and solving the shortstop conundrum. The growing feeling is that only one of those things will happen, and of the trio, adding Freeman is the lowest priority.