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Hirsh: Freeman, Heyward signings make Braves' future clear
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Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman reportedly agreed to an 8-year, $135-million contract with Atlanta on Tuesday, the largest in team history. - photo by MCT

With a young foundation and a constricting payroll, the future of the Atlanta Braves has been relatively murky for the last few seasons.

On Tuesday, it became much clearer.

In a matter of hours general manager Frank Wren avoided arbitration with Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, signing them to two- and eight-year deals, respectively.

Heyward’s contract will pay him a guaranteed salary of $13.3 million, with performance-based bonuses included. While this deal solidifies his presence in Atlanta for the next two seasons, it will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in 2015 — a fact that has many feeling uneasy.

For Heyward, who still has much to prove before hitting the open market, this may be an ideal scenario. For the Braves? Hard to tell.

"I think in Jason's case, [a two-year deal] is probably a good thing," Wren told MLB.com. "Last year was such a tough year for him physically, through no fault of his own, with the appendectomy and getting hit in the face. So it also made it tough for both sides in an arbitration situation. It made it hard to pin a number when comparing to players who played a lot more or a lot less."

Heyward finished the 2013 campaign with a .254 batting average, .349 on-base percentage and just 14 home runs. Yes, he did improve considerably after being slotted at the lead-off position, but he also hasn’t lived up to “No. 1 Prospect in Baseball” billing from 2010.

Freeman’s extension is a historic one, as it will reportedly cost Atlanta around $135 million — making it the most expensive contract in franchise history.

"Freddie has established himself as one of the best young talents in the game," Wren said. "We are excited to sign one of our own homegrown players to a contract that will keep him in a Braves uniform for the next eight seasons."

***

Undoubtedly, Freeman is now the face of the Braves. That much we know. Given his reputation among teammates and opponents alike, he should thrive in that role and become one of the most recognizable faces in baseball.

What we don’t know, however, is what this all means for Heyward beyond 2015.

For numerous reasons, the odds of keeping Heyward in Atlanta long-term have never been particularly high. And given these recent developments, it certainly feels as if his tenure with the Braves will end sooner rather than later.

For now, though, he’s happy to be done thinking about money.

"Playing baseball is the most important thing here," Heyward told MLB.com. "Now we don't have to go back and forth about the arbitration process and determining likes and dislikes, pros and cons and whatnot. To me, that's not what is the most important."

If Heyward continues to progress over the next two seasons and evolves into an All Star-caliber outfielder, a more affluent organization than Atlanta will be able to swoop in and offer him a monster contract — one Liberty Media simply won’t be able to afford. If Heyward plateaus or only improves slightly, the Braves would likely have to over-pay to retain his services.

And with Freeman’s new deal chewing up much of Atlanta’s payroll, the Braves will have to be careful with how they dole out the rest of their available funds.  In addition to Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Kris Medlen are all due hefty raises in the coming years, and it would be naïve to think the Braves can afford to keep all of them.

On the off chance Heyward is willing to take a big hometown discount, another extension would definitely be in the cards. If not, well, his days wearing a tomahawk are likely numbered.

While the odds of Heyward sacrificing money to play for Atlanta may not be high, it would still make sense. He was raised in Georgia, after all, and grew up watching the Braves throughout his childhood.

“Baseball has a business side to it when it comes to dollars and cents,” Heyward added. “That’s not why I play. It’s not what I want to discuss when I’m trying to prepare for a season.”

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One cannot help but wonder how big of a role Atlanta’s new stadium played in Tuesday’s spending spree. The organization expects significant revenue growth to occur after moving to Cobb County in 2017, which will make Freeman’s gargantuan deal easier to manage.

But even though Freeman’s new salary is eye-popping, it doesn’t feel risky. At just 24 years old, the El Modena High School (Orange, Calif.) product still has a lot of room to grow and has a track record of consistency. His 23 home runs, 27 doubles, .319 average and .396 on-base percentage in 2013 propelled him to his first All Star appearance, even earning him some National League MVP votes.

The Braves know what they’re going to get from No. 5, making this deal easier to swallow than those of Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton.

Another thing to keep in mind regarding Freeman’s contract: it may not be much of a bargain in 2014, but it certainly will be down the road. Contract inflation has risen substantially of late, and soon players of Freeman’s talents will command much larger salaries than he did.

***

Tuesday’s developments leave Craig Kimbrel as the lone Brave set for arbitration. He and his agent asked for $9 million for the 2014 season; the Braves countered with $6.55 million. His hearing will be on Feb. 17.

The disparity between these two proposals is the highest among all 38 MLB players to exchange numbers with their respective clubs back on Jan. 17. Whether or not that gap will matter at the end of the day is difficult to tell.

There has been a lot of speculation that Kimbrel could be moved by the Braves in the next few years, and it’s easy to see why. As the best closer in baseball he expects to be paid as such—and rightfully so—and it’s unlikely the Braves could (or even should) pony up the cash necessary to keep him in Atlanta.

It appears that arbitration will be a pivotal moment for the Braves/Kimbrel relationship. Atlanta hasn’t gone to arbitration since doing so with John Rocker in 2001, so it’ll be interesting to see how the two sides emerge from all this.

Indeed, the future of the Braves became a lot clearer on Tuesday, but it’s still quite blurry.

Andrew Hirsh is a sports reporter for the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at 770-205-8983, ahirsh@forsythnews.com or on Twitter at @AndrewHirsh.