Rosenthal: Freddie Freeman's lingering free agency saga is rife with tears, anger and blame

Rosenthal: Freddie Freeman’s lingering free agency saga is rife with tears, anger and blame

We’re all suckers for it. The departed free agent returns to where he started. Fans shower him with affection. Tears are shed, hugs exchanged. The passage of time makes the bittersweet moment less bitter, more sweet.

That’s what you thought you were seeing when Freddie Freeman returned last weekend to Atlanta, right? Well, we know now an undercurrent of anger fueled Freeman’s emotion, the bitter rivaling, perhaps even surpassing, the sweet.

Freeman’s decision to leave the Braves for the Dodgers was one of the most regrettable free-agent results in recent memory, and one for which every party — the Braves, Freeman’s agents at Excel Sports Management, Freeman himself — bears responsibility.

The episode reflected much of what is wrong with professional sports in the 21st century. Teams more concerned with payroll efficiency than showing loyalty to players who rewarded them. Agents more concerned with setting a financial standard than honoring the wishes of their clients. Fan favorites bolting for other clubs because … well, why exactly?

Freeman’s decision to join the Dodgers on a six-year, $162 million free-agent contract seemed unfortunate the moment it happened more than three months ago. It looked even worse over the weekend, when Freeman shed enough tears to irrigate the playing surface at Truist Park for the next three months.

And incredibly, the saga is still not over.

On Sunday night, during ESPN’s broadcast of the Dodgers-Braves series finale, all baseball agents received a “do not contact Freddie Freeman” email from the Major League Baseball Players Association. The union only issues such orders at a player’s request. In such cases, the player generally wants to avoid being overwhelmed by calls or messages from his previous agency, or other agents interested in representing him.

Multiple agents said Sunday night that Freeman had decided to fire Excel. Freeman declined comment to The Athletic on Sunday and again on Monday. Casey Close, the lead agent at Excel, did not respond to requests for comment.

ESPN reported Tuesday that Freeman had left Excel, but Freeman still would not publicly confirm, describing the situation as “fluid.” At this point, it would be a shock if Freeman stayed with the agency. Perhaps he is just not ready, for whatever reason, to make the news official.

Freeman, 32, finally seems to understand he needs to move on, telling reporters Tuesday, “there needs to be closure,” after telling me in an interview for Fox Sports on Saturday, “I’m not looking to have any closure. I don’t want to close something that was so special to me for 15 years.” But to borrow a term that is frequently invoked by players, all of the parties involved need to “wear it.” One by one, here’s why:

The Braves

Let’s start with the Liberty Media ownership, which reported $568 million in total Braves revenue for 2021, a season in which, ahem, Freeman helped lead the team to its first World Series title in 25 years.

Liberty Media and the Blue Jays’ parent company, Rogers Communications, are the only two major-league ownerships that, as publicly traded entities, must report their earnings. The Braves’ success, both on the field and in the Liberty-owned Battery development adjacent to Truist Park, prompted Liberty to establish a second-straight payroll record, jumping from $131.4 million on Opening Day in 2021 to $177.8 million in ’22.

So, why draw the line with Freeman?

That choice, it seemed, rested largely with president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos, who, despite Liberty’s recent largesse, does not operate with unlimited resources. The Braves, even after their payroll boost, rank only ninth in the majors. So when Anthopoulos in Aug. 2021 offered Freeman a five-year, $135 million extension — $5 million more than the Cardinals gave an arguably superior first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt — he might not have been comfortable going much further. Whether he increased the offer to $140 million once Freeman was a free agent is in dispute.

My belief — and the belief of a number of agents and executives in baseball — is that Anthopoulos preferred the matter to play out precisely how it did, with the Braves trading for a younger, cheaper reasonable facsimile of Freeman, Matt Olson. Is Olson as good as Freeman right now? Probably not. But his eight-year, $168 million contract covers his age from 28 to 35 seasons. Freeman’s deal with the Dodgers covers his age 32 to 37 campaigns.

Olson cost the Braves four prospects in their trade with the Athletics, but his $21 million average annual value left the team with more payroll flexibility than Freeman would have at $27 million or $28 million per. The Braves, who excel in scouting and player development, included catcher Shea Langeliers as the centerpiece of their deal with the A’s in part because they had another young catcher, William Contreras, who is emerging this season as a potential star.

Anthopoulos and the Braves, then, could very well end up looking smart. Their fans had no problem embracing Olson, who grew up in Lilburn, Ga. But Freeman was an immensely popular homegrown talent, a worthy heir to Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, precisely the kind of player who should spend his entire career with one team. If the Braves truly wanted him, they did not push hard enough.

Excel

The emotions Freeman displayed in Atlanta made it obvious that he is sensitive. He said he made it clear to Excel from the outset of discussions with the Braves that he wanted to stay in Atlanta. At that point, Excel’s mission should have been clear. Talk to other teams. Exert as much leverage as possible. But in the end, cut the best deal possible with the Braves.

Freeman wanted six guaranteed years, or at least, Excel wanted six guaranteed years for him. Excel can point to two superior offers made by the low-revenue Rays, according to ESPN — six years, $140 million or seven years, $150 million — as evidence that the Braves did not make a sufficient effort. But Excel should have known its client and known how he would react to leaving the Braves. If Freeman’s overwhelming priority was to be in Atlanta, nothing else should have mattered.

Excel will collect the commission on Freeman’s deal with the Dodgers, which at the standard baseball rate of 5 percent would be $8.1 million over the course of the deal. The loss of Freeman, however, would mark the second high-profile departure of a newly signed free-agent client from the agency in the past two months. Second baseman Trevor Story, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Red Sox in a deal that became official on March 20, switched to Wasserman Baseball at the end of April.

Freeman had reason to trust Excel, which negotiated his eight-year, $135 million extension with the Braves in Feb. 2014. The agency, highly respected, represented Hall of Famer Derek Jeter as well as a number of current stars, including Goldschmidt, Clayton Kershaw, Kyle Schwarber, George Springer and — ahem — current Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, who is in his walk year .

Excel, though, should have anticipated Freeman’s reaction. The agency ultimately secured a sixth guaranteed year from the Dodgers, but to what end? Freeman’s $162 million deal, considering higher tax rates in California and deferred payments in the contract, might be comparable in net value to the $135 million the Braves are known to have offered. And according to sources, one of Freeman’s motivations for leaving Excel would be to prevent the agency from trumpeting his deal as its latest triumph.

Freddie Freeman

So, who was running the show here, anyway? Freeman doesn’t work for Excel; the agency works for him. And it’s Freeman’s fault, more than anyone else’s, if he did not end up exactly where he wanted.

As much as he might have thought he made his desires clear to Close and Victor Menocal, the Excel representative with whom he usually communicated, Freeman should have been more directly involved in the process. He is not the first player influenced by his agent to seek the biggest contract over the most comfortable landing spot. He also would not have been the first player to overrule his agent even if it meant less money for both parties.

That said, Freddie doth fret too much.

The Dodgers were not exactly an undesirable landing spot for Freeman, who is from Orange County in Southern California. Freeman and his wife, Chelsea, have spent offseasons at their oceanside house in Corona Del Mar, an hour from LA And the team has made nine straight postseason appearances, an even more impressive run than the Braves’ four straight division titles.

Freeman, if he indeed leaves Excel, would not need an agent for contract negotiations until his current deal expires, and an attorney or business manager can help him with endorsements and other matters. He’s going to be just fine, though no one should be surprised if his outpouring of emotions last weekend raised eyebrows among his new teammates.

Kershaw seemed to send a not-so-subtle message to Freeman, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I hope we’re not second fiddle. It’s a pretty special team over here, too.” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, though, defended his new first baseman’s reaction, telling The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya, “If anyone has a problem with it, that’s on them. It shouldn’t be a problem. This guy has helped us win as—-ton of games this year and will continue to do so.”

Fair enough, but last weekend turned out to be less a celebration than a realization of all that went wrong. A player, team and agency, all accomplished, combined to produce an unfortunate and unnecessary outcome. Too much bitter, not enough sweet.

(Top photo of Freddie Freeman: Bob Andres / Associated Press)

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