ATLANTA – It won’t be long until the moving trucks will be departing from Turner Field bound for the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. But before the exhibition games begin, the Atlanta Braves and several key players have some business to attend to.
Arbitration hearings loom for first baseman Freddie Freeman, outfielder Jason Heyward and closer Craig Kimbrel. The trio will have their salaries for the upcoming season determined at some point during the next three weeks.
Prior to Tuesday’s snowfall and subsequent traffic debacle, Freeman and Heyward were among several players and coaches who took part in the Braves Country Caravan stop at Clarkdale Elementary School.
After visiting with the students, it was time to address the excitement of a new season as well as the mindset going into the final stage of the arbitration process.
Though long-term extensions could happen at some point, the Braves are a “file and trial” club. In short, they allow the hearings to determine the yearly salary figures in the event that no agreement is reached prior to the deadline (January 17) to avoid arbitration.
Freeman is coming off an MVP-caliber season. He finished fifth in the voting for the award after setting career-highs in virtually every offensive category. Freeman batted .319/.396/.501 with 23 homers, 109 RBI and 89 runs scored in 147 games.
He has asked for a $5.75 million salary, with the team offering $4.5 million. A hearing will take place in St. Petersburg, Fla., on a date yet to be determined between February 1-21.
“When it happens, it happens,” said Freeman of the hearing. “It’s my agents’ stuff [and] I let them deal with it. I’ve just got to get ready for the season. If I have to go down there whenever my hearing is, I’ll go down there and then we’ll get ready and whatever happens, happens.”
The Braves enter the upcoming season as one of the most talented young squads in the game, but watched several key veterans depart via free agency.
Starter Tim Hudson joined the San Francisco Giants rotation, while reliever Eric O’Flaherty opted to take up residence across the bay with the Oakland Athletics. Both were big pieces of the Atlanta staff in recent years and leave behind voids to fill.
“I think losing Huddy and O’Flaherty is big, but that’s the name of the game,” said Freeman. “Every team goes through [free agency], we just have to pull together and get through it. Hopefully we can come out on top. We’re a young group and we’re going to be fun to watch.”
The biggest adjustment will come at position that has been a source of strength since 2005. Catcher Brian McCann left to sign a five-year, $85 million deal with the New York Yankees. Following that move, manager Fredi Gonzalez indicated that he would entrust the majority of the time behind the plate to Evan Gattis.
“Our main group is very young and we’re still all together,” said Freeman. “Everybody saw what Gattis can do last year with the bat. He only got better learning from [veterans] at the catching position.”
With no time to linger on the personnel changes, Freeman added the NLDS loss to the Dodgers to the list of things that won’t be crossing his mind again anytime soon.
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “Once we lost, I went home and sat in my room for two days then went and started working out again. I don’t dwell on that.”
It will no doubt serve as some sort of motivation for Freeman as he seeks to build on his success from 2013, but his off-season regimen certainly didn’t need any fine tuning.
“I was in really good shape last year and just wanted to keep [my routine] the same,” said Freeman. “My weight stayed the same all off season. I’ve been working out five times a week. Everything is good. I feel great. I’m just getting the itch and ready to go back.”
Heyward is heading for a hearing despite being just $300,000 apart from his request of $5.5 million and the team’s $5.2 million offer. It is one of the narrowest of differences in this year’s arbitration class.
Of the 146 players to file (full list here), there are 29 set to be scheduled for hearings. Only two of those men – Andrew Cashner of the Padres and Josh Tomlin of the Indians (both $125,000 away with their respective clubs) – are heading there separated by less money than Heyward with Atlanta.
Heyward shares Freeman’s stance on the matter, realizing this is the business side of the game.
“That’s just part of baseball,” said Heyward. “You expect it, understand it, [get] caught up to speed and then after that, it’s ‘play ball.’”
When it comes to getting back on the field, Heyward anticipates no setbacks from an injury-riddled 2013 campaign in which he underwent an emergency appendectomy and suffered a broken jaw.
“It’s better. More solidified,” said Heyward of his surgically repaired jaw. “Got the doctor’s blessing to be cleared for whatever.”
Heyward found a new home atop the Braves batting order last season. His work out of the leadoff spot energized the team before being struck in the face with a pitch on August 21 against the Mets. After working hard to return in late September and be part of Atlanta’s playoff run, Heyward feels confident that he will not be affected by it going forward.
“Freak injuries happen. Clearly,” he joked. “But I still had fun, still was able to come back and clinch the division with my teammates and have some fun in the playoffs as well. It’s all experience, being young in the game. [You] try to take it, go forward and improve.”
Heyward has spent the first four years of his career trying to live up to the lofty expectations that come with being a first round pick in the city you grow up in. His impressive physique and well-rounded skill set will be counted on more than ever in 2014.
Health was obviously an issue last season, but the 24-year-old’s best days lay in front of him. If anything, Atlanta realized just how much Heyward can impact the game with the bat and in the field.
When the decision is reached in arbitration, he’ll be ready to turn the page and put the focus back where it belongs. That means letting the future take care of itself.
“I think for me, I just need to be on the field of play,” said Heyward. “If I do that, then I feel like I’m doing my part and then some. And I know I mean a lot to this team whether I’m around playing or not, but most certainly playing on the field. As far as what anybody else does, the front office or anything, that’s out of my hands.”
The Atlanta Braves avoided arbitration with four players on Friday, but the team still has more work to do.
Among those to reach agreement were pitchers Kris Medlen and Mike Minor, third baseman Chris Johnson and outfielder Jordan Schafer. That leaves Atlanta with three major pieces of its squad yet to agree to deals for 2014.
Friday carried a 1 p.m. deadline for teams and their arbitration-eligible players to exchange salary-arbitration figures or come to terms for 2014.
The team issued an official release for the players who agreed to deals. It did not include first baseman Freddie Freeman, outfielder Jason Heyward or closer Craig Kimbrel.
Clubs and players still have the opportunity to reach agreement after the deadline, though the Braves have not made a practice of doing so. David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Friday night that the Braves will have no further negotiations with Freeman, Heyward and Kimbrel according to general manager Frank Wren and will instead go to hearings.
Arbitration hearings will take place February 1-21 for those unable to come to agreement on Friday. At that time, the player will either be awarded his request or the team’s offer rather than a figure in between.
Medlen, 28, showed he belonged in the Atlanta rotation by following up his stellar run late in 2012 with another good campaign last season. A slow start and spotty run support contributed to his 15-12 record, but Medlen finished strong to lead the starting staff with both a 3.11 ERA and those 15 wins. He’ll earn $5.8 million this season, a significant raise from his 2013 salary of $2.6 million.
Minor, 26, continued his evolution into a solid front-end starter with a more than respectable 2013 season. The lefty went 13-9 with a 3.21 ERA. He led the team with 32 starts, 204.2 IP and 181 strikeouts, all personal bests. Minor’s 2014 salary of $3.85 million represents a nice jump from the $505,000 he made last season.
Johnson, 29, was the less-heralded part of Atlanta’s big trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks last winter, but he certainly proved himself to be more than just a throw-in. Taking over for Chipper Jones at third base, Johnson hit .321/.358/.457 while vying for the NL batting title. The two sides agreed to a $4.75 million deal for 2014, more than double his $2,287,500 salary from 2013.
Schafer, 27, hit .247/.331/.346 with 22 stolen bases in 94 games in 2013, but missed significant time in the middle of the season with a stress fracture in his right foot. After returning from the disabled list, Schafer batted just .170 in his final 33 games. He will make $1.09 million in 2014.
A very talented trio is ticketed for arbitration hearings. Regardless of which side wins in each case, the Braves are projected be paying tidy raises to each man.
Freeman, 24, set career bests in most offensive categories in 2013. He batted .319/.396/.501 with 23 homers and 109 RBI to earn NL All-Star honors. After finishing fifth in NL MVP voting, Freeman was first time arbitration-eligible and will see his salary jump noticeably from the $560,000 he made last season. He was seeking $5.75 million, while the Braves offered $4.5 million.
Heyward, 24, had much of his 2013 season derailed by injury, but emerged as a catalyst at the top of the Atlanta lineup in the second half. While his .254/.349/.427 line in 104 games may seem run-of-the-mill, Heyward batted .322/.403/.551 with 31 runs scored in 30 games out of the leadoff spot. After making a $3.65 million salary last season, Heyward asked for $5.5 million. The team countered with a $5.2 million figure, putting them just $300,000 away.
Kimbrel, 25, has quickly built a reputation as the best closer in baseball. After piling up a career-high 50 saves in 2013, Kimbrel now has 138 over the past three seasons. Add in a 1.39 ERA and 15.1 SO/9 to his eye-popping career totals, and it’s easy to see how Kimbrel will become the highest paid first-time arbitration-eligible closer (surpassing a record of $6.25 million paid to Jonathan Papelbon by the Boston Red Sox in 2009). Kimbrel submitted a $9 million request, while Atlanta was prepared to pay $6.55 million.
The baseball world was set abuzz by the announcement that Yankees star third baseman Alex Rodriguez has been suspended for the entire 2014 season (including the postseason). It is the largest suspension ever handed out for involvement with performance enhancing drug use. While the ramifications of the impending legal battle to follow are yet to be known, MLB has sent its loudest, clearest message about PED’s in the sport.
On the premiere episode of the “Around the Big Leagues Podcast,” Grant McAuley looks at how A-Rod arrived at a one-year ban and where all parties go from here.