'Shock': Braves replace Freddie Freeman with $168 million man Matt Olson in whirlwind 24 hours

NORTH PORT, Fla. – Just a few minutes after noon on Tuesday, Matt Olson strode into the Atlanta Braves clubhouse looking like any other twenty-something – albeit with an undeniably athletic appearance and the perfunctory designer backpack – and met his new co-workers, a simple act necessitated by events thoroughly out of his hands.

“Matt. Nice to meet you,” he said to reliever Will Smith. Dansby Swanson, the Braves shortstop and his almost college roommate, playfully headbutted Olson and then went in for the bro hug.

This stranger in a strange land then moved to the corner of the clubhouse once occupied by Freddie Freeman.

Instead, 38-year-old pitcher Charlie Morton, holding court with three staffers blocking Freeman’s empty stall, rose eagerly to his feet.

“Charlie,” the Game 1 World Series starter said, by way of introduction, before motioning to the pitching coach. “And this is Rick Kranitz.”

A few feet away, Braves clubhouse director Calvin Minasian quietly toted an Oakland Athletic bag to an unmarked stall with Olson’s new white-and-red No. 28 Braves jersey hanging. Minasian removed Olson’s equipment and meticulously arranged it in the stall before removing the green and gold bag from the room.

And just like that, the page was turned.

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Freeman, the 33-year-old potential Hall of Famer who came to Atlanta a quiet 20-year-old and left a five-time All-Star, franchise icon and World Series champion, won’t work here anymore. He will be replaced by a Gold Glover who turns 28 in two weeks and who, as a high school junior in suburban Atlanta, revered Freeman when he debuted with the Braves.

Freeman’s departure was not announced, but rather contextually derived from the moment the Braves shipped four top minor-leaguers, most notably catcher of the future Shea Langeliers, to the A’s for Olson, who capped the most frenetic 24 hours of his professional career by shipping west from A’s camp in Arizona to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Oh, and on the way, signed an eight-year, $168 million extension to ensure his tenure as a Brave will extend beyond the next two seasons.

It was a stunning 24 hours for all parties, proof of Major League Baseball’s ruthless efficiency yet also its enduring capacity for renewal.

Surely, some Braves fans will never get over the loss of Freeman, the 2020 NL MVP who hit 271 home runs and then, fittingly, crushed one more in Game 6 of the 2021 World Series, a fitting coda to Atlanta’s first championship since 1995.

Yet what if you told Braves fans that Freeman would be replaced by a kid who attended Parkview High School in suburban Lilburn, who in November married a Johns Creek girl and University of Georgia grad, who in August closed on a home “inside the perimeter,” as Olson colloquially said of his newly-purchased home, and who can remember the exact pitch – “a two-seamer from (Carlos) Zambrano” – that Jason Heyward smacked for a home run in the first at-bat of his career, Opening Day, Turner Field, 2010.

A year later, Freeman arrived and Olson blossomed into a 2012 second-round pick by the A’s, who signed him away from Vanderbilt University. His roommate was to be Swanson.

Monday afternoon into Tuesday morning, the paths of Freeman and Olson and Swanson and others became intwined forever, and the new guy knows he can’t avoid the comparisons to his predecessor – “big lefty hitter, righty thrower.”

Freeman, somewhat stunningly, will not be a Brave for life. Instead, he’ll be replaced by a guy who long dreamed of being that guy. The wildest day of his career made it a reality, a process that began when the A’s told him not to join his teammates for their first workout of this lockout-shortened spring training, that there was something going on.

“It started to get a little tenser then,” said Olson, who joked that agent BB Abbott was prepared to interrupt he and Nicole’s November wedding with a trade announcement. “This past week, with the lockout, getting out to Arizona to be with the A’s, being on pins and needles a bit, and finally something happening and getting here, it’s definitely been a whirlwind. But I’m happy it’s happening and that this is the place.

“It was a whirlwind afterwards. It was a quick decision, but every box is checked here. Winning a World Series, a great young core, my hometown, my family still works here, getting a long deal done.”

Olson said his parents are “pretty stoked” and “extremely happy and proud” about the deal, and the short commute to Truist Park for ballgames.

Their son should excel, as he’s still in his prime: A .910 OPS for the A’s in 2021, 5.7 Wins Above Replacement that ranked seventh among position players, and two Gold Gloves for perhaps inarguably the best defensive first baseman in the game.

Yet his parents almost certainly will hear boos as well, and unrequited love for Freeman. That the Braves moved on so quickly speaks to their ruthless efficiency in sticking to a budget provided by corporate owner Liberty Media – but also their faith in Olson.

Freddie Freeman during the Braves' World Series celebration in 2021.
Freddie Freeman during the Braves' World Series celebration in 2021.

'We're not going to sign Freddie'

Hours before Olson’s quiet entry, the Braves clubhouse was still a bit woozy from the 1-2 punch of this trade – most notably the departure of their linchpin. Freeman was as amiable as he was productive, with a quiet ability to hold teammates to account while producing an .893 OPS over 12 seasons.

Their workout had concluded when an emotional Cristian Pache came into the clubhouse, startled that he’d been traded. His teammates comforted him and finally asked, to where?

“Oakland.”

Uh-oh.

The Olson-to-Atlanta, Freeman departure was a never-ending trade rumor, that spanned the pre-lockout transaction frenzy, smoldered as both sides sat on the sidelines during the 99-day work stoppage, and went into hyperspace mode in the five days since baseball reopened.

Still, it stung.

“It was surprising for the whole team,” says All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies. “Everybody (was) in shock like, ‘We’re not going to sign Freddie.’”

Swanson, who like Olson grew up in suburban Atlanta a Braves fan, was similarly jolted, yet heartened by the return package.

“I think the easiest way to describe it is it’s fine to feel two different things at once,” says Swanson, who is entering the final year before free agency himself. “Obviously, part of me is really excited for Matt to be here. We have a little bit of a history. If there’s anyone to be able to man first base other than Freddie, it would be him.

“But also part of you is disappointed and frustrated that Freddie is not going to be here anymore. We were good friends, obviously, and really enjoyed our time together in the clubhouse. Just one of those things that you always know it’s a possibility going into an offseason but when it happens, it still hits home a little bit.”

It didn’t help that the Braves saw Freeman grow up before their eyes, marry his wife Chelsea, have three children and wear his emotions, his heart, on his sleeve. Freeman gave much of himself to the Braves – as they rewarded him with an eight-year, $135 million deal just a year-plus into his career – and was revered for it.

“I love Freddie. I love his family – Chelsea, Charlie, Max, Brandon,” says catcher Travis d’Arnaud. “I’m going to miss seeing Charlie on the field every time after we win and giving him high fives and knuckles, and sitting next to him while he eats ice cream. It’s the little things that I’ll remember more so than what was on the field.

“But I’m happy for Freddie, though. He deserves whatever he wants in the world. He’s a great player, he’s a great person – family man – and I’m going to miss him.”

That is the shadow Olson must navigate, which he says “won’t affect what I’ll do.” Braves fans are a typically forgiving bunch, though they like what they like, and they loved themselves some Freddie Freeman.

That’s not to say they won’t fall in love with the new guy.”

“I hope the fans welcome him with open arms,” reliever Tyler Matzek says of Olson. “I hope he doesn’t feel he needs to, but he has big shoes to fill. He just goes out there and does what he needs to do – he’s an All-Star, too – he’ll be in a good spot.”

Freeman celebrates the final out of Game 6 of the 2021 World Series.
Freeman celebrates the final out of Game 6 of the 2021 World Series.

'Something had to be done'

It’s hard to argue he isn’t already there. In guaranteeing himself $168 million over eight years, Olson ensures he won’t have to test a free agent market that’s been tepid on first basemen (just ask Freeman).

He puts himself in the midst of a fantastic young core that includes Albies, Ronald Acuña Jr., emerging superstar Austin Riley and, for at least this year, Marcell Ozuna, Swanson and d’Arnaud.

And in escaping Oakland, he finds himself with an organization that’s won the NL East four consecutive years, is the reigning World Series champion and has in recent years strongly committed to winning, even within Liberty’s nebulous corporate structure.

GM Alex Anthopoulos wept in announcing the Olson trade, knowing it would nudge Freeman out the door. Tuesday, he said he told Olson his next call was going to be to Abbott, to hammer out an extension.

Anthopoulos did not want Olson to meet the media and the fans wearing the label of a two-year rental.

So the bartering began, Anthopoulos aiming low, Abbott setting a bar he knew the GM would not accept, before they settled on a $168 million pact that will create immediate flexibility.

While Olson will make an average of $21 million per season, his 2022 salary is $15 million, $7 million less than Freeman’s 2021 salary and a little more than half what Freeman might command. That leaves the Braves financial leeway to buff out the rotation and bullpen and add an outfielder.

Atlanta will also pay Olson for his age 28-35 seasons rather than Freeman for his 32-37 years on what might have been a six-year deal.

“It was late night. It was long,” says Anthopoulos, who went from teary-eyed to bleary-eyed in a hurry. “But I thought it was important people knew that as Matt got into this clubhouse and this community, everybody knew this was going to be a long-term thing, that he was going to be part of this core.

“That they worked with us in a short amount of time, I was just elated. We knew we were giving up a ton. But I thought we had the best of both worlds.”

Tuesday morning, d’Arnaud looked out at a gaggle of cameras and noted they’d typically be trained on Freeman, not himself. He wonders who will stand up and say something when needed, and if there will be a veteran player who can quiet the room, E.F. Hutton-style, merely by speaking up.

Perhaps if baseball hadn’t shut down, Freeman would still be in Atlanta. But a 99-day lockout followed by a microwave free agent and trade period forced change upon the Braves.

“Normally, from November to December, they could have talked, hashed things out,” says d’Arnaud. “But things are happening so fast that something had to be done.”

Two hours later, Olson walked through the door, introducing a new era for the first baseman and his teammates.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Matt Olson signs for $168M as Braves move on from Freddie Freeman