Over the last couple of offseasons, we have seen two key members of the Atlanta Braves, Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson, move on to different teams. While there are plenty of parallels that fans are very willing to draw between the two cases, there were some key differences including the different markets, willingness to leave money on the table, the lockout, position, etc. Regardless, neither Freddie nor Dansby are Braves anymore.
This article isn’t looking to rehash those decisions because, frankly, there isn’t much point in doing so and we honestly won’t know for a while if those decisions were correct from a baseball or financial perspective. I can respect the Braves’ decision to stick to their price points for both players and I can respect both players for making the best decisions for themselves and their families. It’s the name of the game and the Braves’ ability to extend players early in their careers is an anomaly in this league.
However, one player that may see their name added to the list of guys that won’t be playing for the Braves past their current deals is lefty ace of the Braves’ staff Max Fried. While it may not what Braves fans want to here, there are several reasons why Fried could end up going elsewhere by the time he hits free agency in 2024 (and maybe sooner).
Extending Fried this close to free agency is not the Atlanta Braves’ MO
To be blunt, when the Braves sign guys to extensions, they do so early in their careers to give themselves cost certainty through their arbitration years and to add on a couple of years beyond their usual team control. The contract extensions for Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Michael Harris II, Austin Riley, and Spencer Strider fit that mold. They also all have the benefit of being fairly team friendly with some more friendly/egregious than others.
However, as players get closer to free agency, the Braves have been decidedly not as successful or willing to add on significant numbers of years. Maybe its because those years are more costly or maybe its because the Braves really model in regression a good bit as a player ages or maybe they just want to keep their options open.
Whatever the reasoning, even with two years of team control left, this isn’t usually the time period when the Braves lock down players. To put it another way, we are rapidly getting to the point where if the Braves were going to extend Fried, they probably would have done it already.
Max Fried is going to be very expensive (and he should be)
Max Fried has fashioned himself into one of the absolute best pitchers in the league period. Not just in the National League or just amongst left-handers….the entire league period. He has two top 5 Cy Young finishes already, three deserved Gold Gloves, and a World Series ring and without any signs of slowly down.
We took a look recently at what a Max Fried extension would look like from a numbers standpoint and, understandably, he is not going to be cheap. The recent contract that Carlos Rodon signed with the Yankees gives some hope that maybe it won’t cost $30 million a year for six years plus to retain Fried’s services, but Rodon has some injury/innings issues associated with him and if Fried continues to dominate over the next couple of seasons, he could easily command over $30 million a year in free agency and that is after some VERY healthy raises in arbitration.
We have not seen the Braves put that sort of money out there for any player. They have never been big players for the top free agents under general manager Alex Anthopoulos that would command long, expensive deals. That isn’t to say that AA wouldn’t try to bring Fried back, but it seems far more likely that he would be asking Fried to leave money on the table to come back. With Fried being an MLBPA rep that is also looking at a massive payday, him taking a hometown discount doesn’t seem all that likely.
Pitchers are uniquely risky investments
There is another reason why the Braves may not bring back Fried and its the simple matter that he is a pitcher. Have we seen the Braves pay a pitcher recently on anything other than a short-term deal like Charlie Morton’s? Nope. Spencer Strider got a six year deal, sure, but that only bought out two of Spencer’s free agent years and gave the Braves cost certainty during his arbitration years which, at his current pace, could prove to be an absolute heist for the Braves.
The problem with pitchers is that the laws of physics are not on their side. One elbow or shoulder injury can turn a guy from a Cy Young candidate to a fifth starter on the Pirates in short order. Fried already has one Tommy John surgery under his belt from his prospect days and has been known to get nagging minor injuries and need to skip a start here and there.
This isn’t a knock on Fried whatsoever…its just the reality of the position. For every Max Scherzer that defies the passage of time, there are 20 guys that flame out quickly due to age or injury. Max is going to have a lot of miles on that left arm of his by the time he hits free agency. There are plenty of good (if painful) baseball reasons not to extend him based on his position alone.
Max Fried’s time with the Atlanta Braves could be winding down
Given this context, we think there is a real chance that we could be seeing Max Fried’s time with the Braves drawing to a close over the next couple of seasons. While it may not make sense to trade Max yet given that the Braves are firmly in their competitive window, it wouldn’t be crazy for the Braves to explore it as an option after the 2023 season to help reload the farm system especially if they KNOW that they can’t/won’t extend him.
That certainly doesn’t mean that it won’t be painful if/when he departs.