Why the Braves made Freddie Freeman their new Chipper Jones

The Atlanta Braves made a bet on first baseman Freddie Freeman, and it has paid off. He's hitting for a .349 average with a 1.224 on-base plus slugging mark. Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman struck up a friendship on the high school showcase circuit in 2006 and cemented it after the Atlanta Braves chose them with the 14th and 78th picks in the 2007 draft. As minor league roommates, they shared visions of the long road ahead over box lunches on bus rides to the next town on the schedule. The African-American outfield prodigy from suburban Atlanta and the rangy white first baseman from California were so inseparable that teammates referred to them as "Salt and Pepper."

Over a span of nine months in 2014, Salt and Pepper received an education in how economics can trump sentiment in the big picture.

In February of that year, the Braves signed Freeman to an eight-year, $135 million contract that marked the biggest financial commitment in club history. The spending spree didn't quite extend to Heyward, who opted for a two-year deal before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in November.

Freeman has since dug his spikes deeper into the Georgia clay, while Heyward moved on to Chicago. Fresh off a sixth-place finish in the National League MVP voting, Freeman is trying to lead the Braves back to relevance in the National League East. Heyward, now in the second year of an eight-year, $184 million contract, delivered the inspirational rain-delay speech that helped spur the Cubs to victory in the Game 7 World Series clincher in November.

But they're forever bound by those formative years in Atlanta, before the dollar signs intervened and changed their perspectives on the game.

"Three years ago I finally got to see the business side of baseball," Freeman said. "It was tough. Probably the hardest day for me personally was seeing Jason get traded. Selfishly, me and him would always say we wanted to play our whole careers together. It was definitely weird seeing him leave."

Comb through the rosters for all 30 MLB teams, and you'll find a crossroads when management had to make a tough call on a franchise cornerstone. In 2011, the Cardinals held the line with Albert Pujols and watched him leave for Anaheim through free agency. On the South Side of Chicago, the White Sox signaled they were ready to take a longer-term view when they traded Chris Sale to Boston for four minor leaguers in December.

The Braves made their pivotal decision when they committed to Freeman over his best friend in the game. Looking back at the decision through the numbers, they made the right call.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, Heyward has accumulated 15.1 wins above replacement to Freeman's 14.7 since the start of the 2014 season. But about half of Heyward's value is attributed to his defensive contributions in right field. Offensively, it's no contest.

Since the start of 2014, Freeman boasts a .911 OPS, seventh among big leaguers with 1,000 or more plate appearances. The six players ahead of him: Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera.

Over that same span, Heyward ranks 170th among MLB hitters with a .721 OPS. He's right behind Norichika Aoki and Kevin Kiermaier and tied with Gregory Polanco.

If the decision seems relatively simple now, it was a lot more complicated then.

In the winter of 2013-14, the Braves were busy locking up a budding nucleus of young players. They spent a total of $267 million on long-term extensions for Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, closer Craig Kimbrel and starter Julio Teheran. The team considered a longer commitment to pitcher Mike Minor but couldn't quite get it done.

"Probably the hardest day for me personally was seeing Jason [Heyward] get traded. Selfishly, me and him would always say we wanted to play our whole careers together." Freddie Freeman, Atlanta first baseman

Heyward and Freeman shared a prominent agent, Casey Close, but were at slightly different phases of their careers. Heyward was 24 years old with four years of service time (one more than Freeman), and the lure of a big free-agent deal was strong enough to dissuade him from a longer commitment. So general manager Frank Wren and Close settled on a more modest accommodation; the Braves bought out the final two years of Heyward's salary arbitration years at a cost of $13.3 million.

Internally, the Braves' deliberations reflected some wariness. They loved Heyward's defense, speed, maturity and team-oriented mindset. But his swing mechanics were complicated, and he was prone to lengthy slumps at the plate. Some evaluators in the Atlanta front office wondered if he would be able to replicate the success he showed in his rookie season in 2010, when he logged an .849 OPS and finished second to Buster Posey in NL Rookie of the Year balloting.

"The performance had been so inconsistent, we didn't feel like going long term was the right thing to do," said Wren, now senior vice president of baseball operations for the Red Sox. "We felt like over the course of their early careers in the major leagues, they had separated themselves. We felt like Freddie had become one of the best young hitters in the National League, and Jason was still trying to find himself."

Heyward didn't even play out his two years in Atlanta. In November 2014, the Cardinals were desperate for outfield help after Oscar Taveras died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic, and they acquired Heyward from Atlanta for pitcher Shelby Miller in a four-player trade. Heyward thrived under Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry and used a productive 2015 season as a springboard to a monster contract with the Cubs. But his performance lagged in 2016, and he spent the offseason revamping his swing. Through 28 games this season, Heyward is hitting .253 with a .697 OPS. On Monday, the Cubs placed him on the 10-day disabled list with a sprained finger.

Freeman, meanwhile, has developed into a monster player in Atlanta. He has found his "man strength," as manager Brian Snitker refers to it, and set career highs with 34 homers and a .569 slugging percentage in 2016. This season, he's off to an even more impressive start at the plate.

"When you're committing the kind of dollars we committed to Freddie Freeman, the best predictor of the future was the past," Wren said. "In every park we played in, we saw Freddie take batting practice and hit balls as far as anyone. If you add power to what we had already seen, then you've got a star. That's what we're seeing today."

After signing his club-record deal, Freeman attacked the 2014 season with every tool in his arsenal. He hit .320 with six home runs and a .570 slugging percentage in April and went on to appear in all 162 games. Instead of taking comfort in his financial windfall, if anything, he was driven by a constant fear of failure.

"There's a lot of pressure when you sign the biggest contract in Braves history," Freeman said. "There's a responsibility that comes with it on and off the field. The Braves are such a class organization; you don't want to do anything to tarnish that. I'm very hard on myself already. Add the contract, and you want to prove to everybody in baseball that you deserve it.

"I played all 162 games because I didn't want people to say, 'He's a bust,' or, 'He's stealing money.' It makes you want to go out there and play hard every day so people can't say that stuff about you. Believe me, I felt it. You try and put that away, but you're going to feel it. Everybody feels it."

When Freeman recounts his education in the business side of baseball, Heyward's departure was one of several life lessons along the way. The Braves fired Wren in September 2014 and hired John Hart as interim GM, and they proceeded to part ways with several players on multiyear deals. After sending Heyward to St. Louis, they traded Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels and dealt Kimbrel to the San Diego Padres.

"We felt like Freddie [Freeman] had become one of the best young hitters in the National League, and Jason [Heyward] was still trying to find himself." Former Braves GM Frank Wren

Amid the turnover, the Atlanta front office hung on to Freeman and Teheran as central figures in a rebuild. John Coppolella, who was named general manager in October 2015, made his feelings known when he said publicly that he would "give my right arm" before trading Freeman.

"We felt because of their contracts, their ages, their upside and most importantly, who they were as people, these were two individuals around whom we wanted to build," Coppolella said. "We had to at least listen, but there were never any intention on our part to trade either player."

Freeman, who projects a bit of a Clark Kent vibe with his glasses and serene off-field demeanor, has embraced a more prominent role at age 27. He has become the de facto leader in the clubhouse even though the Braves' roster includes the likes of Matt Kemp, Brandon Phillips and Nick Markakis -- established players on the other side of 30.

Freeman wears No. 5, and rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson wears No. 7, so their lockers are located side by side in a lot of parks. Each day, Freeman passes along collected bits of wisdom in the same way Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla and other veterans helped a young Freeman upon his arrival in Atlanta.

"I see him growing into being that leader -- a guy that people look up to and can talk to," Snitker said. "I think the world of him because of the way he goes about it. Watch his effort on the field. He hustles all the time. He's legging balls out. He's going first-to-third and scoring on the two-out single from second base. He does a lot of the little things that people don't see."

As the Braves' 11-18 start this season has shown, they have a ways to go as a team. But the farm system ranks among the best in the game, SunTrust Park is earning rave reviews, and Freeman can see the organizational vision taking shape.

"When we started the rebuild, they brought me in and showed me, 'We have this money locked up here, and we need to do this, this and this,'" Freeman said. "Then you're winning 65 games a year and you're not competitive, and you're like, 'Oh, man. This is tough.' But what they've done in two years is mind-blowing to me."

As he motors along toward the end of his contract in 2021, Freeman is taking personal responsibility for putting Atlanta's rebuild over the top. Salt and Pepper are no more. But he's in it for the duration.