Max Fried’s future with Braves uncertain, but he’s aiming for big things in 2024

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ATLANTA — They are two of just three Atlanta Braves players who’ve been with the team throughout its streak of six NL East titles, and pitcher Max Fried and second baseman Ozzie Albies are among the most decorated Braves in that span. Fried has a pair of top-five Cy Young Award finishes including a runner-up in 2022, one All-Star appearance, three Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger award. Albies has three All-Star appearances and two Silver Slugger awards.

But Albies has something Fried doesn’t have: job security beyond the 2024 season.

Albies is signed through 2025 — on an extremely team-friendly deal — with two club-option years beyond that. Fried is on a one-year, $15 million contract and will be a free agent after the season, barring an extension before then.

With spring training set to begin in just over two weeks, it’s possible that Fried, as tenacious on the field as he is soft-spoken and mild-mannered in interviews, will have his pleasant demeanor tested by persistent questions this spring. That’s not so much from Atlanta media — at this point, there’s not much more we can ask until the situation changes — but national media stopping by Braves camp. Folks who are there to file stories about the high-profile Braves, and wondering about the status of its 30-year-old lefty entering a free-agent walk year.

Fried fielded several such questions with aplomb at Saturday’s Braves Fest event at Truist Park, showing no signs of being irritated by either his contract status or queries on the subject. He explained how he’ll be able to stay focused and not let the situation affect him on the mound or in the clubhouse.

By “living in the cliches,” as he put it.

“You know, stay in the moment, all that kind of stuff,” Fried said. “For me, this is what I’ve loved to do since I was 3 years old. I was running around little baseball fields watching my older brother play, and I’ve been throwing the ball since I can remember. And I’m my authentic, genuine self when I’m out on the mound and I’m playing and I’m with my teammates.”

He added, “I love nothing more than going out there and competing. And baseball’s my outlet to do that. … I love playing, I love baseball, I love competing. And if I just focus on those things, then everything else will take care of itself.”

Teammates seem certain Fried won’t have any problems handling the situation.

“I don’t think it’s something he’s thinking about,” said Spencer Strider, who led the majors in strikeouts (281) and wins (20) in his second season in 2023, and combines with Fried to give the Braves arguably the best starting-pitcher duo in baseball. “I think that (Fried) loves Atlanta and being in this clubhouse, and for him, nothing’s really changing. You know, he’s showing up the same way he has for however many years — same house, same group.

“I think his goals are the same as the rest of ours, and that’s go out, perform, win, and the rest will take care of itself.”

“He’s obviously very smart and intelligent,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said of Fried, whom he’s known since they were Single-A teammates in 2016 at Rome, Georgia. “I think his purpose for which he plays the game is for the love of the game, and he’s very passionate about it. I don’t know if I know anybody that does more homework between each start than him.

“So I think for that reason alone, I think he’ll be able to handle the talks (about) free agency and all that stuff. He’s a level-headed guy that is wanting to win ballgames.”

When healthy, Fried has won games at a higher rate than almost any MLB pitcher in recent years, going 60-21 with a 3.00 ERA in 116 games including 113 starts since moving into the rotation full-time in 2019. He’s posted an impressive 146 ERA+ with 631 strikeouts in 650 1/3 innings in that span.

“Strider is one of the best pitchers in the game and Max is one of the best lefties in the game,” veteran left-hander Chris Sale said in early January, after being traded to the Braves from the Boston Red Sox and signing a two-year extension. “We’re very excited to hop on this staff and feed off each other and compete for another division and hopefully another world championship.”

The only current Braves who’ve experienced an Atlanta World Series championship are Fried, Albies and lefty relievers A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek, who returns after missing the 2023 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery in October 2022. Minter and Matzek are also eligible for free agency after the season.

Fried and Minter avoided going to arbitration hearings when they settled three weeks ago on one-year deals, Minter at $6.22 million and Fried at $15 million, with Fried avoiding what would’ve been a third consecutive arbitration hearing.

He got $600,000 more than what MLB Trade Rumors had projected he’d get in arbitration, but $15 million is only about half of what many believed Fried might get per season in a five- or six-year free-agent deal if he’d had seasons in 2023 and 2024 as good as the three previous.

That was before he was limited to 14 starts in 2023 due to injuries including a left forearm strain that sidelined Fried for three months. Now, coming off that season and after turning 30 this month, it’s uncertain what type of contract he might command if he hits the open market after this season.

Unless the Braves sign him to an extension between now and midseason — seemingly more unlikely the later it gets — then the size of his next contract will depend in large part on whether Fried stays healthy and pitches at his customary high level in 2024.

Aaron Nola, who is also 30 and has two top-five Cy Young finishes like Fried, got a seven-year, $172 million contract to return to the Phillies as a free agent, after the Braves pursued Nola early in the offseason.

While Nola hasn’t posted a sub-3.25 ERA in any of the past five seasons and Fried has three sub-3.00 ERA in the past four, Nola has been far more durable, making at least 32 starts each of the past five seasons, pitching more than 200 innings three times in regular seasons, and totaling 193 2/3 innings last season plus 23 more in postseason play.

Fried had relatively minor injuries including finger blisters and hamstring strains that caused him to miss starts every season, but still made 30, 28 and 30 starts in his first three full seasons and pitched at least 165 innings in each, including a career-high 185 1/3 in 2022.

But last year was different. He was out half the season with the more serious forearm strain. Fried excelled again upon returning in early August, then developed a blister in September that flared twice and limited him to one start and six innings pitched in the 3 1/2 weeks before his Game 2 NLDS start against the Philadelphia Phillies.

In that big game, he wasn’t sharp and was charged with six hits, three runs and four walks in four innings — though the Braves still won, 5-4, their only win in a four-game series in which they scored just three runs combined in the other games.

It was the second consecutive abrupt playoff exit for the Braves, both in four-game NLDS losses to the Phillies in which Fried wasn’t at full strength. In the 2022 series, weakened by a recent bout with the flu, he was charged with six runs (four earned) and eight hits in 3 1/3 innings of a Game 1 loss to the Phillies.

Those two starts against the Phillies are his only postseason starts since 2021, when Fried was a hero of the Braves’ World Series run, pitching six scoreless innings of four-hit ball in the clinching Game 6 win at Houston. That was after a frightening first-inning incident when he had his ankle stepped on and bent severely while covering first base, but somehow avoided injury and only seemed more resolute afterward.

He’s slender and Hollywood-handsome, but Fried is tough. Anyone who’s competed with or against him can attest to that.

When he’s on the mound, he’s as talented and doggedly determined as any pitcher in baseball. But the injuries, plus a relatively advanced age for a first-time free agent, are believed to have stopped the Braves from making the kind of offer Fried wanted. The Los Angeles native has spoken openly in past years and this offseason about his fondness for Atlanta and the Braves organization, and those who know him best on the team believe he’d prefer to stay.

“I’ve spent a majority of my career with the Braves,” Fried said. “I spent a couple of years with the Padres and I got traded over (while recovering from) Tommy John, and I was 20 years old. Looking back on it, it’s about 10 years now. So, this is really all I know. And the organization’s been nothing but supportive to me. And the fans and the city have really embraced me. I really love my time here.”

Another factor to consider in any extension: Fried is the players’ union representative for the Braves, and that status could make it less likely for him to take anything less than perceived market value for a pitcher of his ilk. Especially now that he’s in his final year before free agency.

Perhaps his past injury history would make him more inclined to take long-term security without waiting to make sure he got the absolute most he might get as a free agent. But at this late stage, so close to free agency, perhaps not. It’s unclear if the Braves made a strong offer that comes close to what Fried might be looking for.

“I would say, it’s out of my control right now,” Fried said Saturday, not making it clear if that meant there were no ongoing negotiations. “But, I mean, the Braves do things a certain way, and I know that privacy and having that just kind of be more behind closed doors is the way things are done (here). So I’m going to respect that. But, I know that I love being here, and I’m really excited to get started with this group.”

Talking to him, you get the impression that his long IL stint last summer, and another NLDS loss to the Phillies, have been on his mind even more than his contract status during the offseason, which he spent much of in Atlanta, working out with teammates and attending occasional Atlanta Hawks NBA games.

“I pride myself on being able to take the ball and win ballgames,” Fried said. “So, it killed me last year to be sitting here in Atlanta when the team’s on the road, watching them on the television like everyone else. For me, there’s nothing better than competing and taking that ball every fifth day. And I want to be able to do that every single time my turn comes around. So, I’ve been working really hard this offseason. I’m really itching to get to go in the spring. I just want to get started and get back on the mound and kind of get this thing rolling.”

(Photo of Max Fried: Bill Streicher / USA Today)

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