Freeman looks to build on MVP-caliber year

After injury-riddled 2015, the Braves' first baseman returned with a career year in '16

Freeman looks to build on MVP-caliber year

With Spring Training fast approaching, will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Braves squad each day this week. Today's topic: How's your star?

ATLANTA -- Given the choice to make Freddie Freeman or Jason Heyward their franchise cornerstone before the 2014 season, the Braves seemingly chose wisely by giving Freeman an eight-year, $135 million contract extension, which could actually prove to be a bargain if the first baseman extends last year's success.

As Freeman prepares to draw an annual salary of 20-plus million dollars over each of the next five years, he is coming off a season in which he ranked third in the National League with both a 6.1 fWAR (trailing only Kris Bryant and Corey Seager) and 152 Weighted Runs Created Plus (trailing only Joey Votto and Daniel Murphy).

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Still eight months shy of his 28th birthday, Freeman is entering what could be the prime of his career with the capability to have a significant impact on the Braves' success as they look to distance themselves from their recent rebuilding efforts and move toward a future that could become much brighter as early as this year.

"I think people forget that he's still just 27 years old because he came up early and has been a key part of our team for many years," Braves general manager John Coppolella said. "As good of a player as he is on the field, he's every bit as good for us in the clubhouse and the community. He's our best player and he's becoming one of our most valuable leaders."

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After Freeman was both sidelined and burdened by a right wrist injury during the final four months of the 2015 season, there was concern about potential lingering effects and also some speculation about the possibility the Braves would try to trade him. But both of those thoughts evaporated as Freeman batted .302 with a career-high 34 homers and a .968 OPS last year.

Freeman struggled throughout much of last season's first two months, but by the middle of June there was no longer reason to be concerned about how the wrist injury might have influenced his simple, compact swing.

According to Statcast™, among all players who put at least 300 balls in play last year, Freeman ranked fifth with an average distance of 245 feet, trailing only Chris Carter (251), David Ortiz (250), Chris Davis (249) and Matt Carpenter (249). The Braves first baseman's 91.7 average Exit Velocity matched the mark produced by Mike Trout.

Freeman's salary jumps from $12 million to $20.5 million for the upcoming season. He will make $21 million in the two seasons that follow and then $22 million in both of the final two years of this contract, which runs through 2021, when he will be 32 years old.

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According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the 13 position players who will draw a higher salary than Freeman this year are: Miguel Cabrera ($28M), Albert Pujols ($26M), Robinson Cano ($24M), Joe Mauer ($23M), Yoenis Cespedes ($22.5M), Justin Upton ($22.3M), Hanley Ramirez ($22M), Joey Votto ($22M), Heyward ($21.5M), Adrian Gonzalez ($21.5M), Matt Kemp ($21.5M), Buster Posey ($21.4M), Jayson Werth ($21M).

Freeman produced a better fWAR than each of those 13 players last year and the 13.6 fWAR he's produced over the three seasons completed since signing his mega deal ranks sixth in the NL, trailing Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Posey, Bryant and Bryce Harper.

The true value of Freeman's contract will be realized once it expires, but so far he has not given the Braves any reason to regret committing to making him the franchise's cornerstone.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.