So far this season, Troy Glaus has certainly done an outstanding job at first base for the Atlanta Braves. Eric Hinske backs him up and they can both still hit. But age is creeping up on both players.
This past fall I had an opportunity to see Freddie Freeman play in the Arizona Fall League. It is widely believed that Freeman will take over at first base for the Braves as soon as 2011. It might depend upon Freemanís development and Glausí status with the club. But make no mistake; Freeman is front and center on the Braves' radar.
The Braves are preparing for the tandem of Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman to lead their offense for years and years to come. My jury is still out on Freeman. I need more evidence of reality vs. potential. That will take more time.
Just as I had great difficulty projecting the Seattle Mariners first-round draft pick Dustin Ackley as a future star, I have the same difficulty with Freeman. Based upon what I saw, Freeman has a great deal of work to do on his game. But heís only 20 and he wonít be 21 until September. So, basically, I have to project what an increase in maturity will yield to the finished product. Thatís a difficult task with a player still growing and maturing.
Freddie Freeman is a very large 6-foot-5, 225-pound left-handed hitting first baseman from Orange, California. He was a pitcher at El Modena High School. He had planned to attend California State University-Fullerton, but the Braves selected him in the second round (No. 78 overall) in the 2007 First Year Player Draft. Freeman chose to take the Braves' $409,500 signing bonus. Heís been on their launching pad ever since. Frankly, you may want to put him on yours as well. My only issue at this time is the degree of his success as a major league baseball player. I wish to be clear about Freeman. I think heíll have success. Iím not sure he will be a star or in the upper echelon of first basemen.
Of critical importance is Freemanís potential as a hitter. By no means has he scratched the surface of that potential. Iím having some trouble quantifying his upside in my own evaluation system. More on that later.
This past fall, I saw a stiff approach at the plate with a dependency on quick hands and strong wrists to get the job done. In fact, Freemanís stride to the ball was virtually non-existent. There is very little, if any, shift of weight from the back leg to the front. That weight shift could result in power and loft, but it is lacking with Freeman. Unlike Ackley who lunges a bit at the ball, Freemanís legs do not contribute much to his swing. The lack of help from his lower body and the fact he gets little if any lift on the ball give me reason for concern. His hands are quick through the ball and his overall strength guide the line drives when he has success as a hitter.
But power hitters have to gain some loft and lift to get the ball out of the yard. Perhaps that will come with more maturity and repetition at the plate.
I have heard Freeman compared to both Mark Grace and Adrian Gonzalez. I think heís more Lyle Overbay-a solid line-drive hitter. Actually, Grace and Gonzalez are the total opposites. Grace drove the ball to the gaps and hit an occasional ball out of the park. Gonzalez can drive the ball out of any park with exceptional bat speed and a slight uppercut. So, donít buy the Gonzalez comparisons. In reality, Freeman may be somewhere between the gap hitting Grace and the homer hitting Gonzalez. Again, heís still very young to make final projections on his power. That type combination, a little Grace and a little Gonzalez would produce an outstanding hitter.
There is no doubt in my mind the Braves have first base reserved for Freeman. Most of their front office personnel believe they have an incredible tandem of power hitters in Freeman and Heyward. However, I had a lengthy discussion with one of the Braves' brain trust. He is not as sold on Freeman. He has many of the same concerns I articulated to him; Freeman relies too much on his hands to hit, he is stiff at the plate and in the field, lacking agility and he wonít be a 25-home run hitter as projected. Thatís whatís so great about projecting players. Sometimes an individual is correct, sometimes not. But letís look deeper:
Freeman is slow on the bases. He is the prototypical power hitter with a plodding approach home to first and a clogging presence on the bases. That can be tolerated if the hitter slams the ball out of the park or drives in runs.
As expected from his pitching background, Freeman has an excellent arm. He shows both strength and accuracy from his position at first base. But I have more concern with the stiffness and lack of agility I saw on defense. However, Freeman has a reputation as an outstanding defensive player at first base. I just didnít see it. In fact, he had great difficulty bending down and/or reaching for ground balls when he was playing in Arizona. Yes, the ground was hard. But I saw other first basemen make those plays with ease. It didnít just happen once. The stiffness and the lack of agility and athletic ability repeated itself.
So why are the Braves so high on Freeman? There are a number of very good qualities to like. For example, Freeman has good pitch recognition. For a young hitter, he has a good sense of the strike zone and he is able to fight the temptation to swing at every pitch he sees. That isnít always the case with young hitters. I wouldnít call him patient at the plate, but I wouldnít call him impatient either. His bat speed is a plus. As I noted above, his quick hands get through the ball and his extension and finish on his swing allow him to drive pitches. The Braves also see a huge athlete with a strong upper body. They project power and an ability to drive in runs as Freeman gains experience and age. Probably true. I hope for their sake it is. It just hasnít manifested yet. But heís only 20. I keep telling myself that.
Iíve noted my basic concerns earlier in this piece. I have to remember that I saw a Freddie Freeman recovering from a wrist injury. I saw a Freddie Freeman very young and raw. Itís difficult to overcome wrist and hand injuries. They take time.
Freeman is already playing Triple-A baseball as a 20-year-old. Playing Triple-A baseball after 2 Ĺ seasons of professional baseball is worth noting. Thatís the fast track. Last season, Freeman hit .248 in 149 at-bats in the second half of the season while playing for Double-A Mississippi in the Southern League. He hit eight homers in 2009 and only two while at Double-A Mississippi. But so far this season, Freeman is hitting pretty much as I had expected. Letís take a look at some numbers:
Freeman has 208 at-bats at Triple-A Gwinnett in the International League. He has 15 doubles and six home runs as of the morning of June 20, 2010. He is hitting .264 with an on-base percentage of .326 and a slugging average of .442. He is hitting right-handed pitching much better than lefties. Heís .278 vs. righties and .220 vs. lefties. Heís hitting .301 at home and only .229 on the road. Clearly, Freeman is a work in progress. He has only struck out 33 times while walking on 18 occasions. Not bad at all. There is plenty of upside in his hitting ability. It is that potential-that upside that the Braves are counting on to carry the day with Freeman.
The Braves' quick movement of Freeman through their system illustrates the confidence they have in his potential ability. Not deep with either power hitters or first basemen in their organization, Atlanta will turn to him if they feel they canít retain Glaus with efficient cost certainty as well as cost containment or if Glaus should suddenly falter. But are they rushing his development? Is he the power hitter the Braves project? Will he hit for enough average against high quality major league pitching? Is he the defensive first baseman that matches his reputation? Those are my questions.
Despite the lack of eye-popping results at this stage of his career, Freeman is on the fast track to Atlanta. Heís someone to be aware of and to evaluate carefully as time marches along. I have my short-term doubts. I have fewer doubts longer term. But remember, heís only 20 years old. And he hasnít demonstrated the tools of a Jason Heyward or a Michael Stanton. All three were born within four months of each other in 1989. But Freeman has potential and he could burst on the scene soon. Even if the Braves force his presence. Thatís the part that concerns me.