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The Los Angeles Dodgers have won at least 100 games in three of the last five seasons, and now their lineup features yet another MVP winner who also happens to be one of baseball’s most consistently great hitters.
Which is to say: Yeah, Freddie Freeman is a good fit for them.
The Dodgers agreed to terms with the 32-year-old Wednesday night on a six-year contract that will reportedly pay him $162 million through his age-37 season in 2027, per MLB.com.
After spending the first 15 years of his professional career in the Atlanta organization, Freeman gets to go home. He was technically a fan of the Los Angeles Angels while growing up in Orange, California, but a Twitter exchange between him and the Dodgers from 2013 suggests he harbors no hard feelings for the Boys in Blue.
Of course, his new contract does as well.
It presumably wasn’t just the money and the homecoming opportunity that drew Freeman to the Dodgers, but also the chance to experience the same sort of glory he enjoyed in his final season with Atlanta in 2021. He followed his MVP-winning campaign from 2020 with yet another excellent effort, culminating in his exclamation point on the club’s World Series victory.
Though all signs seemed to point toward Atlanta and Freeman reuniting in free agency, it quickly became apparent that the club didn’t want to do a six-year deal. Rather than back off, Atlanta pivoted by trading for and extending area native Matt Olson.
Though that was a move for a younger and potentially just as good first baseman, the Dodgers can still rightfully see Atlanta’s loss and their gain.
The Dodgers Got a Good One
Save for maybe “Citizen Kane is a good movie, actually,” there indeed might not be a more lukewarm take than “Freddie Freeman is good, actually.”
He’s had few missteps throughout his 12-year MLB career, and basically none since he made the leap to stardom as a 23-year-old in 2013. The last nine seasons have seen him post a .302/.394/.523 slash line with a 162-game average of 30 home runs. By OPS+, he’s the only player to be more than 30 percent better than the average hitter annually in this span.
Oh, and in addition to being an MVP and a World Series winner, he’s also a five-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger and a Gold Glover.
Granted, the big unknown—i.e., the one that likely scared Atlanta off a six-year deal—is how Freeman will age.
As I’ve previously discussed, there’s no shortage of precedents for a first baseman performing like a star through age 31 only to then fall off a cliff. The scariest example is Albert Pujols, who simply never resembled the superstar he had been for the St. Louis Cardinals after signing a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels in 2011.
I also discussed, however, that Freeman is devoid of red flags the likes of which Pujols had then.
Though his numbers did take a dive in 2021 relative to 2020, when he hit .341/.462/.640 in the shortened season, his final .300/.393/.503 slash line was very much in theme with his overall record since 2013. This is even though he came in under both his .320 expected batting average and .583 expected slugging percentage.
There just isn’t a whole lot that Freeman doesn’t do well in the box. He takes his walks and avoids strikeouts. His swing is geared to keep the ball off the ground, but just as much for single-friendly line drives as extra-base-hit-friendly fly balls. He’s also better than most left-handed hitters at beating the shift, hitting .339 against it for his career.
Come 2023, Freeman likely won’t even have to worry about the shift anymore. He also has the universal designated hitter to look forward to, as it figures to take him off his feet occasionally in 2022 and probably more frequently thereafter.
It’s all reason enough to believe that the Dodgers will get their money’s worth out of Freeman. So, rather than like Pujols, he can age like Frank Thomas, Jim Thome or Joey Votto.
Ye Gods, That Lineup
Freeman isn’t so much augmenting the Dodgers lineup as he is completing it. It’ll be his job to fill the spot vacated by star shortstop Corey Seager, who departed for the Texas Rangers on a 10-year, $325 million deal in December.
That is, not the spot Seager occupied in the field but rather in the middle of Los Angeles’ projected batting order:
Those are all recognizable names that have accolades to match. Mookie Betts was the American League MVP in 2018 and Cody Bellinger was the National League MVP in 2019. Of the other six regulars, only Will Smith has yet to be an All-Star. And he’s the best-hitting catcher in MLB.
Data courtesy of Baseball Reference.
On average, you’re looking at a 129 OPS+. The Dodgers’ World Series-winning team from 2020 “only” had a 119 OPS+. If anything, that first number is more reminiscent of the literal 1927 New York Yankees, who were paced by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to a 127 OPS+.
The Dodgers’ starting nine won’t account for every one of the team’s at-bats in 2022. Injuries will happen. So are days off, in which times it will be the next man up.
However, even the team’s depth pieces should keep the machine humming. Matt Beaty had a 107 OPS+ last year. Hanser Alberto is a bat-to-ball guy who hit over .300 in 2019. That same season, fellow utility man Gavin Lux was Baseball America‘s Minor League Player of the Year after ripping off a .347/.421/.607 line in the high minors.
There’s also the prospect of some of the Dodgers’ regulars doing better than even their baseline performances over the last three years. That especially applies to Betts and Bellinger. The former led the majors in average and slugging as recently as 2018, while the latter had a 167 OPS+ and led the NL in total bases in 2019.
Even if the 2022 Dodgers don’t give the 1927 Yankees a run for their money, they might at least be a modern-day terror akin to the Houston Astros, who lead the majors in average, on-base, slugging, OPS+ and runs scored since 2017.
World Series or Bust
Every team has potential pitfalls, and that’s no different even with this stacked Dodgers squad.
In the lineup, it’s possible 2022 will be no easier than 2021 was for Betts and Bellinger as each struggled to keep their numbers up despite assorted aches and pains. At 37, Justin Turner is on the old side. Though he expects to be ready for Opening Day on April 8, Max Muncy doesn’t expect to be fully recovered from the torn UCL in his left elbow until next year.
On the other side of the ball, the Dodgers retained 2014 NL MVP Clayton Kershaw but lost fellow three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer to free agency. They replaced him with Andrew Heaney, who can be charitably described as “a project.”
There’s also a Kenley Jansen-sized hole in Los Angeles’ bullpen. Even if Blake Treinen does well in his stead in the ninth inning, the relief corps as a whole could be weaker.
Despite all this, the Dodgers are still projected by FanGraphs to be the best team in baseball. They’re slated (likely conservatively) for 98 wins, as well as an 81 percent chance to win the NL West and an 18 percent chance to win their second World Series in three years.
Would the Dodgers still have projected well without Freeman? Absolutely. Just not this well. Hence why he is indeed a Dodger.
So, all Freeman and the Dodgers have to do now is nothing that either party hasn’t done before: Go win some games.