Freddie Freeman, the NLDS, and Team Building

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman sits dejected in the dugout in the 9th inning. Curtis Compton/AJC

The Washington Nationals entered the 8th inning of elimination game down 3-1 on the road to the best team in the league. The Dodgers, somewhat controversially, turned to their HOF starter to get them through the inning. Then this happened:

The Nationals’ best players stepped up.

Washington was a stars and scrubs team this year. That is, they built a winner by collecting a handful of great players to lead an overall average roster. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto. Those are their stars. This is the opposite of a team, say like the Dodgers, who built their juggernaut on incredible 1-25 depth. And it’s a perfectly fine way to build a team. You can absolutely win that way, provided one thing. Your stars have to be elite in October.

The Braves were also a stars and scrubs team. Ronald Acuña Jr, Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Ozzie Albies, and Mike Soroka. Those were their stars this year. Behind them was a collection of just average players like Nick Markakis, Julio Teheran, Dallas Keuchel, Brian McCann, etc. This team was not built like the Dodgers. They were built like the Washington Nationals. And it’s a perfectly fine way to build a team. You can absolutely win that way, provided one thing. Your stars have to be elite in October.

The Braves’ season is over for a lot of reasons. Chris Martin got hurt and Luke Jackson was called on in game one with a two run lead. Two innings later, Jackson and closer Mark Melancon had given up 6 runs, and the two run lead turned into a game one loss. The Braves had numerous opportunities in game four to blow the game open and end it right there. Opportunity after opportunity came and went without the decisive blow beating dealt and the Cardinals eventually came back and won. Bad errors, unproductive outs, blown saves, base running blunders, bad luck, etc. It was all there.

But at the center of this mess is Freddie Freeman. Freeman went 4-20 in this series, with two of those hits coming in garbage time of game five. when the game, and series, had already been decided. His other two hits came in game one. The Braves number three hitter essentially no-showed in the biggest moments, never more obvious than in game four, when so many of those wasted opportunities happened with Freeman standing at the plate. He also had the crucial error that opened the floodgates in game 5. A ground ball, that’s almost certainly an inning-ending double play with Yadier Molina running, bounced off his glove and into right field. The Cardinals would go on to score 9 more runs in the inning and put the series away.

At no point in this series, aside from maybe the HR in game one, did Freddie Freeman look like Freddie Freeman.

In the aftermath, there is certainly going to be conversation about the elbow that bothered Freeman much of September and October. It was a real thing. But what I keep coming back to is, if the player refuses to sit as Freeman did, injury or no injury, the results are on him. And to his credit, Freeman fully understands this. In the post-game last night he said very clearly and very simply “this series is on me” with zero mention of the elbow.

The Braves had other stars of course. Acuña played out of his mind and Albies more than held his own. The decision to only pitch Soroka once in this series is one the entire organization is going to have to live with, unfortunately. Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos and his team along with Brian Snitker and his coaches made that call. Soroka was elite but only touched the ball one game. Donaldson wasn’t very good. What redeems him a bit is he did have some big hits. He drove in the winning run in game 2 and his double started the ninth-inning rally that won game 3. But he never looked like the monster we saw for so much of the season.

And then there’s Freeman.

What’s going to be frustrating for Braves’ fans is they probably didn’t need Freeman to be a star for this specific series. They would’ve certainly needed him in later rounds against better teams but surprising performances from guys like Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall meant Atlanta really only needed passable from Freeman to at least beat the Cardinals. And he couldn’t deliver.

By WPA, win probability added, Freeman was the worst position player on the field in this series. For either team.

Where the Braves go from here is going to be fascinating. If they want to continue with the stars and scrubs model, they need a couple more stars. Especially on the pitching side. Keuchel was a steadying force for Atlanta all year, but there’s a reason he was Houston’s number four starter. Mike Foltynewicz remains forever a tease. He was awesome down the stretch of the regular season and elite in game 2. Then game 5 happened. Do they go after Gerrit Cole? Zack Wheeler? A trade? Whatever they do, Atlanta has to get more top-end talent in their rotation this winter.

If they want to move more towards the Dodgers model of spread out depth, then they’re going to have to evaluate how much sense it makes to pay their number three and four hitters $45M per year. Maybe spreading out some of Donaldson’s money over the rest of the roster has merit. Maybe with Drew Waters and Cristian Pache coming, getting guys like Yasmani Grandal and/or Mike Moustakas to lengthen the lineup and build more depth makes some sense. Maybe not. Maybe with their payroll, just re-signing Donaldson is the best path. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Those are the decisions Alex and his team will have to figure out.

In doing so many one-year deals last winter, they’ll have the flexibility to move in big ways this winter if they want. They have a chunk of money coming off the books. They still have assets in their farm system. But before any of that, they have to pick a path.

The Braves had a great year. It was a ton of fun to follow. But they were built on a model that required their best players to play their best. And they didn’t. So now they go home. And back to the drawing board.


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