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Is Craig a better buy than Freeman?

As the Atlanta Braves announced a series of contract extensions over the past few weeks, I have been watching with interest. The club had typically seemed to hold back in locking down young players from their arbitration years into early free agency. That has changed with the extensions given to first baseman Freddie Freeman, starting pitcher Julio Teheran and closer Craig Kimbrel, among others.

I see all three deals as having implications to the St. Louis Cardinals, at least indirectly. I started with Kimbrel the other day and today’s subject is Freeman.

The Braves and Cardinals each internally developed a starting first baseman that has evolved into a core member of his respective team – Freeman and Allen Craig. (Yes, I know Craig is now required to play in the outfield.)

The two have a comparable amount of Major League Baseball experience, with Craig holding a slight 44-day edge. Yet the younger Freeman – by five years – has played in almost 100 more career big-league games.

The age and durability differences are clearly in Freeman’s favor. Yet, in terms of value as measured by Wins Above Replacement, WAR, Craig has been a slightly more valuable commodity over their respective careers to date.

Freeman 471 1908 1686 250 481 93 68 280 183 400 0.285 0.358 0.466 0.825 7.1
Craig 372 1420 1291 192 395 86 50 247 101 255 0.306 0.358 0.492 0.850 7.7

While both players are now under long-term deals, let’s look at the differences between the two contracts. Specifically how much may the Cardinals have gained by getting their man under an extended contract a year earlier than the Braves?

Last March, the Cardinals continued their pattern of locking up key players before their arbitration years kick in. At that time, the club reached agreement with Craig on a five-year contract through the 2017 season with a club option for 2018.

28 years of age last spring, Craig will remain under contract for his prime seasons, through age 32 or 33. The deal covered his final pre-arbitration season, his three arbitration years and if the option is picked up, two of his free agent seasons.

The contract is for $31 million and could be worth $43 million if the option year is exercised.

The Braves announced their deal with Freeman on February 5. The club will fork over $135 million over eight years, through Freeman’s age 31 season.

Arb-1 Arb1 Arb2 Arb3 Free agent 1 FA2 FA3 FA4 FA5
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
salary 8/$135 $0.56 $8 $8.50 $12 $20.50 $21 $21 $22 $22
age 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31
Craig 5/$31 $1.75 $2.75 $5.50 $9 $11 $1 *
salary 6/$43 * $12 *
age 28 29 30 31 32 33
Difference ($1.19) $5.25 $3 $3 $9.5 $8
Aggregate $4.06 $7.06 $10.06 $19.56 $27.56
$ in MM
* option

While the Cardinals paid more for their man in 2013, the aggregate difference to be spent on the two players from 2013 through 2018 is a whopping $27.5 million in St. Louis’ favor.

To reiterate, I acknowledge Freeman’s age and durability advantages. Yet are those benefits worth even close to $27.5 million?

Granted, the Braves also have Freeman for three more years, from 2019 through 2021, but at a total of $65 million in incremental cost. Maybe that will end up being to their advantage and maybe not.

In the meantime, on paper, this looks like another comparative case in which the Cardinals made a very wise investment early on.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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23 Responses to “Is Craig a better buy than Freeman?”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    The Cards persuaded Craig to forego one year of free agency for obtaining the security of being asssured $31MM. If Craig suffers a more serious foot injury and can never play again, he will still receive $31MM. Thanks to the contract we gave Craig, he is now financially taken care of. We could have gone year to year with him via arbitration, but chose to give him more security and for this he gave us one year of free agency. Both sides found something to like in this deal.

    For reasons best known to the Braves, they are so crazy in love with Freeman, hey wanted to buy him out of FIVE years of free agency at more than $20MM/yr. That’s a lot of money. First basemen are not so super rare that an alternative to Freeman could not be found. Does it make business sense to prefer to shoulder an 8 year commitment? to the Braves the answer is yes. It seems like the Cards prefer shorter term deals that provide them more financial flexibility during the years ahead.

    • JumboShrimp says:

      An apt comparison would be with the deal Albert signed by which the Cards bought five extra years of control. The Cards gave Pujols a 7 year deal, with a team option that was exercised. This added up to $116MM over 8 years. Also for 8 years, the Braves have given Freeman $135MM. Since salaries have increased over the past decade, Freeman is getting a little more money, though pretty unlikely to outperform the results Pujols provided to the Birds.

      • JumboShrimp says:

        Another comp would be the 8 year (2011-18) deal for Joe Maurer. At $23MM/yr, its $184MM. Maurer had more time in service than Freeman, so landed a better deal. Also as a catcher, he was worth a bit more. Yet Maurer suffered a concussion, so is having to move to first base.

        The Cards have been able to re-sign Molina and Wainwright for five years of added control. Its usually better for teams to avoid longer contracts for high injury risk positions like pitcher and catcher.

        • Brian Walton says:

          It is difficult to find good comps, but Mauer is not one. He was already free agent eligible when he got his megadeal. Craig was four years prior and Freeman three. Apples and oranges.

          • JumboShrimp says:

            David Wright of the Mets signed a 7 year $138MM extension. Interestingly, Allen Craig has the same agents: ACES. If the Levinsons could have gotten such a deal for Craig, they would have done so.
            Brian asked “Is Craig a better buy than Freeman?” yes. We have Craig under contract for the best years of most careers. In 2018, we may find a rookie or cheaper vet who will be a better fit for the roster then.
            The Braves are making a far longer commitment. They lost Texeira and JD Drew in free agency, traded Adam Wainwright, among others. Maybe the Braves do not want to lose Freeman too and are willing to pay a lot to cover his peak years. This can be their choice.
            Because Craig turned pro later, his earning power is less. This is a problem for him, but certainly not a problem for the Birds.

            • JumboShrimp says:

              Would a team prefer to have two good players for six years each or one for 12 years? This is another way of considering brian’s question.
              Simply based on player salaries, the 12 year player will cost a lot more than two men for six years each, because MLB suppresses salaries for 6 years and they increase thereafter, for the same performance.
              If we enjoy 7 years of Allen Craig and 6 years of Matt Adams, are we better off than if we had Freddie Freeman for 11 years? The salary costs of Craig and Adams will be lower than the huge cost Atlanta is investing in Freeman. I would rather have Craig and Adams. They will contribute more offense and do so at lower cost.

              • Brian Walton says:

                Agreed, but you have to have the confidence you can source such a player from your farm system every six years. Otherwise, paying market value for the second six years will get expensive.

                • JumboShrimp says:

                  The Braves also lost catcher Brian McCann to the Yankees via free agency. Under free agency, the Braves may feel like repetitive losers. This could be a motive for the franchise to lock up Freeman for the next 8 years.
                  And it has been announced the Braves have signed Cuban refugee catcher Bello, a guy suited for the Cards. With McCann’s loss, the Braves could provide playing time for Bello.
                  Maybe the Cards can sign a different Cuban catcher. We could use higher upside catchers at AA/AAA. The success of the current Cardinals squad hinges in good measure upon Yadier Molina. We could use more depth behind him.

                  • Brian Walton says:

                    Bello is already 29, just two years younger than Molina, and is slated to be a minor leaguer. Not sure why he would be “suited for the Cards.” I doubt he is any better than Ed Easley.

                    • JumboShrimp says:

                      Bello is suited for the Cards because of our structural weakness behind Molina. Some older Cuban players like El Duque Hernandez or OF Cespedes with the Athletics can transition into US ball at a high level. This is why the age of the Cuban does not matter so much as the relevant question of whether he is any good. If Bello could hit a bit and defend a bit, then he could contribute fast for the Braves, given their talent gap at catcher.

                    • Brian Walton says:

                      The only tie I can see between El Duque/Cespedes and Bello is that they came from the same country.

                    • JumboShrimp says:

                      You seem to claim Bello is too old at 29, whereas Cuban pitcher Orlando El Duque Hernandez was 32 when signed by the Yankees. Hernandez would make 211 starts in the US major leagues, playing until age 41.
                      The real question with Bello is whether he has the abilities to contribute at a ML level, not whether he is too old.

                    • Brian Walton says:

                      Jumbo, you are reaching again. El Duque was an international star before reaching the USA. No one heard of Bello until now and probably he won’t be heard from again.

                    • Brian Walton says:

                      LOL! Bello the Great got $400,000 to sign with the Braves. What a haul!

                    • JumboShrimp says:

                      $400K is a lot more than Ed Easley is getting!
                      And lots less than Abreu, who landed nearly $70MM.

                      If Bello were interesting, he would command more than $400K and the Cards would be bidding, given their catching vulnerability. The Braves have ex-Card Laird as backup and traded for Doumit. They also have an up and comer from AA, a Panamanian named Bettancourt. Now they have added Bello to the catching mix.

                      Happily, there is another Cuban catcher, Franco, who will be entering the labor market. If Franco shows promise, the Cards can woo him.

                • JumboShrimp says:

                  The Braves did unearth a cheaper alternative to Freeman in Evan Gattis. Gattis took 4 years off from baseball before entering NCAA Div II Univ of Texas-Permian Basin. He was a 6’4″ 230 pound catcher snagged in round 23 of 2010 and signed for only $1,000. Gattis is the Matt Adams of the Braves. (Adams also went to a small baseball school, Slippery Rock. Adams was also a 230 pound catcher. The Cards found Adams also in the 23rd round.) So the Braves have recent success in finding a good hit LF/1B type at a bargain price.

                  Gattis helps make up for the financial unpleasantness of a five year deal with free agent OF B J Upton, who pulled an Adam Dunn by averaging below .200 during his first season for the Braves. We shall have to hope the Peralta signing turns out much better for us than that of B J Upton for the Braves.

  2. crdswmn says:

    A few weeks back one of the shows on MLBN radio talked about Craig v. Freeman. The hosts (I don’t remember who it was), thought the Cardinals got a good deal with Craig, but they thought Freeman was a better player.

    • Brian Walton says:

      If you trust WAR as an indicator, Craig has been a slightly more valuable player to date. Projecting them into the future, Freeman’s age and durability advantages should give him the edge. The question is whether that edge will be worth the premium to be paid.

      • crdswmn says:

        Age and durability were factors that were mentioned by the hosts, but also defense was a factor. They thought in the end Freeman would have more value.

        I personally thought they were overrating Freeman a little bit.

        • Brian Walton says:

          Yes, defense is another point, though hardly a big swinger, IMO.

          • Nutlaw says:

            Are you suggesting that Freeman’s defense gives him an edge? Um, the fact that Craig can play RF makes him 1000 times more valuable defensively in my mind. Defense at first base is nearly statistically irrelevant in terms of impacting game outcomes. That’s why all of the big, lumbering guys like Adams end up there, of course.

  3. CariocaCardinal says:

    It seems weird to me to question the $27+ million difference through 2018 when based on WAR value Freeman has already made up $10 million of that in the first year (2013) and that was with a relatively healthy Craig. Questioning the out years seems prudent but I think in the early years the Brave’s will get the better deal.

    Also you ignore that Freeman’s top season far exceeds anything Craig has yet to do. Add in the age difference, an apparent jump in FA salaries in the last year, and I won’t be surprised if Freeman’s contract turns out much better. Dont get me wrong, I think the Craig contract is a great deal for the team. But given Freeman’s apparent higher potential and youth it may turn out pretty good as well.

  4. […] as having implications to the St. Louis Cardinals, at least indirectly. I started with Kimbrel, followed with Freeman and conclude with […]

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