Freeman Ready To Help Lead Braves Next Youth Movement
For the second time in as many seasons, Atlanta general manager Frank Wren entered spring training having penciled a rookie into the starting lineup.
What's more, Wren also opted to walk the proverbial tightrope without a net, meaning the options should Freddie Freeman falter are not considered certainties to stop a freefall at the infield's first turn.
Wren not only realizes the situation but is quite comfortable with it. After all, right fielder Jason Heyward held his own in the same situation in 2010 while earning Baseball America Rookie of the Year honors. And considering the fact that Freeman is cut from the same cloth as Heyward, the Braves' GM sees no reason why another part of the team's foundation and subtle youth movement won't be an ideal fit.
"Freddie is much like Jason in that his maturity is much greater than his experience," Wren said. "Succeeding in the major leagues is much more than having the physical talent to play the game. It's just as important to be able to handle the job from an emotional standpoint, especially when you have millions of people watching and evaluating your performance on a daily basis.
"But from everything we've seen, Freddie is capable of handling the game and the ups and downs that come with it."
Since he was drafted in the second round in 2007, the California native has also shown the consistency and ability to succeed at the game's top level when the time was deemed right. Even though he struggled during a cup of coffee with Atlanta last September by hitting .167/.333/.167, he showed at Triple-A Gwinnett that he has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.
"There were a lot of ups and downs last season but I feel like I learned a lot," said Freeman, who hit .319/.378/.521 at Gwinnett. "I made several adjustments, particularly in terms of getting my pitch to hit. At the beginning of the year I was swinging at everything, being too aggressive. Once I settled down, everything started to happen for me."
In the process, Freeman became the first Braves' farmhand to win International League rookie of the year honors since Chipper Jones in 1993. The first baseman was a deserving recipient after leading the league with 147 hits and 240 total bases, tying for second in batting average, and placing second with 35 doubles. He also ranked fourth in slugging percentage and fifth with 55 extra-base hits.
Moving Up Together
Through his first three years in the organization, Freeman and Heyward formed the minors' best tag team while they climbed every step along the organizational ladder together. They were also roommates, which did not change in 2010. With Coolray Field in Gwinnett and Atlanta's Turner Field less than 35 miles apart, they shared an apartment, giving Freeman a first-hand look at what a first-year player experiences in the major leagues.
"We really don't talk about baseball that much," Freeman said. "When one of us was on the road and went 0-for-4, we'd call to see what was going on. The best part was hearing a few stories from Jason that only made me want to get there quicker."
While the dynamic duo was able to carpool in September, Freeman has not looked like the same player who made his major league debut last year. Though quiet as usual, the fuzzy-cheeked first baseman has displayed more confidence upon stepping in against veteran pitchers. He attacked the ball in his spring debut, resulting in three doubles in as many trips to the plate.
"He's going to hit," Jones said. "You look at his swing and his approach and you have no doubt he's going to hit."
Equally impressive is the size Freeman added during the offseason. At 6-foot-5, he has always had a significant presence—both in the batter's box and at first base—while tipping the Toledos at 225 pounds. Yet after a winter in which he hit the weight room four times a week while consuming protein shakes on a daily basis, he added 17 pounds of muscle while maintaining his solid athleticism and cat-like reactions.
"My frame is big enough to carry it," Freeman said of the added weight. "I worked on getting bigger but also on getting quicker, particularly with my fast-twitch muscles. I can tell a difference so far."
Scouts have suggested that Freeman will hit for more power as his body matures. In his three full seasons in the minors, he averaged 49.3 extra-base hits per year, including 14.7 home runs per campaign. Much like Heyward, he's a line-drive hitter who uses the entire field, and is at his best when he's hitting the ball back through the box.
Plenty Of Patience
Even though Freeman, 21, has averaged 80 RBIs over the past three seasons, including 87 in 2010, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez does not plan to open the season with the first baseman hitting in the middle of the lineup. With the return of Jones and the arrival of second baseman Dan Uggla, Gonzalez believes the Braves can afford to bat Freeman seventh or even eighth to reduce the amount of pressure on the youngster.
Freeman isn't going to question that thought process, but he's eager to hit wherever Gonzalez puts him. And even with Eric Hinske and Joe Mather as the backups, the Braves are confident a change in plans is not in the offing.
"I think the most impressive thing about Freddie is the way he has grown and adapted at each of the levels he has played," Braves farm director Kurt Kemp said. "Last year was a great example of that. He was the youngest player in the International League and started off all right, but he kept getting better and better as the season went on. He adapts to the challenges he faces as well as anyone you'll see. He's going to get the chance to do that in the big leagues, and we believe he'll continue to make the adjustments up there."