Braves’ offseason plans complicated by MLB lockout

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It is Feb. 1st, and Freddie Freeman remains unsigned.

Utter this sentence to Braves fans of yesteryear and watch the panic set in. How could this possibly happen? How could we let our franchise icon and former MVP walk away? 

This year, most free agents remain unsigned. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association failed to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, by the December 2nd deadline, ushering in baseball’s first work stoppage since 1995.

What does this mean? The CBA dictates baseball’s economy and rules, so while it is absent, MLB teams and players on the 40-man roster cannot agree to contracts. 

No one can sign, no one can trade and no team can add a player to a major league roster in any way. 

“Today is a difficult day for baseball,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in his Dec. 2nd statement

“But as I have said all year, there is a path to a fair agreement, and we will find it.”

In the face of uncertainty, some teams frantically made deals right up to the 11:59 pm deadline on Dec. 1st. In November, The Texas Rangers spent over half a billion dollars on the infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. The Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers finalized a trade minutes before the lockout. 

The Braves made some moves, signing reliever Kirby Yates to a two-year, $8.25 million deal with a team option for the 2024 season and catcher Manny Pina to a two-year deal worth $8 million,  with a 2024 team option. 

Yates will serve as a valuable bullpen member that ranked 10th in ERA. 

Pina should bring stability to the backup catcher role, which was a revolving door in 2021 as six different backstops saw the field. 

Along with Freeman, key players Drew Smyly, Chris Martin, Jesse Chavez, Ehire Adrianza and playoff heroes Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler remain free agents.

Pitchers Richard Rodriguez and Jaseel de la Cruz were not offered a contract from the Braves before the lockout began and remain unsigned. Utility player Johan Camargo also signed with the Phillies on Dec. 1st after being non-tendered. 

Other than the glaring need for a first baseman, the Braves’ outfield also still needs a major-league-caliber talent. While Marcell Ozuna is eligible to return at the beginning of the season, Ronald Acuna Jr will still miss time recovering from his ACL injury. 

One more major league outfielder is needed to serve as a stopgap for Acuna before moving to a fourth outfielder role. 

In the meantime, the Braves can make transactions involving minor league players. On Jan.17th, the team signed former big-league reliever Jackson Stephens to a minor league contract. 

Before that, on Dec. 8th, they selected the first baseman John Nogowski in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Nogowski will serve as minor league depth but could get a spring training invite.

So when can the Braves’ championship defense tour start?

Negotiations between the league and players’ unions move glacially. Once the lockout began, the two sides didn’t meet until a Zoom call on January 13th. According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, the initial meeting did not provide much hope, with the league’s proposal generating widespread disappointment from players.

According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the players’ union made a counterproposal in person on January 24th, the highlight of a “contentious” meeting. But the meeting went well enough to encourage another session on the 25th. 

With the February 14th pitcher and catcher reporting date rapidly approaching, the union and league need to finalize an agreement to avoid delaying Opening Day.

For the Braves, the sooner the lockout ends, the more time they’ll have to get a deal done with Freeman. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic surmised that Freeman could sign immediately after the lockout ended  – if not with the Braves, then with another team. The Yankees, Dodgers, and Blue Jays expressed interest in Freeman before the lockout began.

The Braves could turn to the trade market as a contingency, with Oakland A’s slugger Matt Olson being a prime candidate. Olson is five years younger than Freeman, a Parkview High School alum and would cost the Braves less in the short term. But money isn’t the only cost. 

Any deal involving Olson would likely need to include one or more of the Braves’ top three prospects – outfielder Michael Harris, catcher Shea Langeliers, and outfielder Cristian Pache.

Finally, there’s the issue of public perception. Fans of the Braves will lose their minds if Freeman signs elsewhere. He’s a homegrown talent. He’s been a Brave through heartbreaking collapse, tough rebuilding seasons, a National League MVP campaign and a World Series championship. 

He’s the face of the Atlanta Braves franchise. His departure would have on this organization’s public perception is hard to measure but very, very real.

Unfortunately, the only thing Freeman and the Braves can do now is play the waiting game.