Braves’ Freeman Aiming For Healthy 2016

Updated from the 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series – The Infield

As the Atlanta Braves continued the process of rebuilding the club over the offseason, it became clear that first baseman Freddie Freeman was the one player who isn’t going to be dealt away. He is, in fact, “untouchable.” To that point, general manager John Coppolella made a bold declaration back in November:

“I cannot make it any more clear. We are not trading Freddie Freeman,” he told USA Today. “We are not. I’d give my right arm before we trade Freddie Freeman. It is not happening.”

It’s unusual to see any GM put life and limb, or at least limb, on the line to keep a player in his team’s uniform. However, it’s a stance that Coppolella has not backed down from in the months that followed. Freeman is a cornerstone player for the Braves and over the last two years, those have been in increasingly short supply. For his part, Freeman is happy to know the club intends to keep him right where he is.

“Very reassuring,” Freeman said of Coppolella’s stance. “When you sign a long term deal and all of a sudden start seeing your name scrolling in some rumors, he called me right away and told me ‘don’t listen to those – those are just rumors.’ You know, everybody’s name gets thrown around. Even Mike Trout’s [name] probably gets thrown around, but the Angels shut those down real quick. Every time the rumors started to come back up, [Coppolella] would come back and just shut them down real fast. It just makes me feel good because I committed to them, they committed to me and they’re staying committed to me. You know, I love the Atlanta Braves. It’s the only team I’ve ever been with and I want to stay with them for the rest of my career. For them to have that belief in me, it’s definitely reassuring.”

Freeman signed the biggest of the long term extensions handed out by then-GM Frank Wren in early 2014, and he is entering the third season of an eight-year, $135 million deal – the largest contract in franchise history. With the market yielding bigger and bigger free agent deals each winter, it may end up being a bargain when all is said and done. But that, of course, depends on a healthy and productive Freeman to make it happen.

Getting back in the swing of things…

When I caught up with Freeman at Braves Fanfest (hear the full interview below) last month, he was upbeat and excited about getting spring training underway.

 

As Freeman checked into his locker at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Tuesday, it became clear that the club wanted to take a cautious approach with its star first baseman. While Freeman told David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’s not dealing with a setback per se, Atlanta is going to ease him back into action as it cannot afford to lose the biggest source of power in the lineup. Freeman opted to rest the troublesome right wrist which sent him to the disabled list last June, rather than undergo surgery. He received a number of anti-inflammatory injections and began swinging the bat pain-free in January. Live pitching will be the first big test for Freeman this spring.

“The start of the off-season wasn’t very good. I ended the year hurt, obviously. We got an MRI a few days afterwards [following the season] and it still showed that I had all this inflammation, all this pain, in my wrist. We did all these treatments and nothing was really working until December 20. I had another injection and we put a lot more medicine in it that time and we waited 11 days. On the 11th day, I took 10 swings and that was the first time I felt pain-free. It took seven months for all the pain to go away, but I’m just really happy it did. I’m starting to hit again and everything feels good,” Freeman said back on January 30.

A few stats of note for the Atlanta first baseman…

Over his first four full major league seasons, Freeman averaged a .287/.368/.466 line with 21 HR and 89 RBI in 153 games. The mid-season wrist ailment and subsequent oblique injury resulted in two trips to the disabled list which cost him 44 games in 2015. Prior to tweaking his wrist, Freeman was batting .299/.367/.520 with 12 homers in 66 games. He then spent five weeks on the shelf, only to return for 10 games before the oblique cost him another 15 days. Freeman batted just .248/.380/.408 with six homers in his final 198 PA and was only available off the bench in the final series of the season as the wrist flared up again.

Even though last season was marred by injury, Freeman had proven extremely durable prior, playing all 162 games and logging a major league-leading 1,449 innings in 2014. A fiery competitor, he prides himself on being on the field from start to finish. Injuries cost Freeman 44 games last year as he batted .276, which ranked 22nd among all first basemen. His 18 home runs ranked 18th, but were enough to lead the light-hitting Braves, as were his 66 RBI. Freeman is hoping the rest and rehab approach will allow him to get back to normal in 2016.

Atlanta has not been given much credit in the way of seasonal projections, with PECOTA pegging the Braves for a forth place finish in the NL East with a 68-94 record – just one more win than last season. Even without a clear clean-up hitter, the team remains hopeful that the lineup will actually be able to provide more offense than the 2015 model, which scored a major-league low 573 runs (40 behind the Miami Marlins). With a top of the order that should be improved by the additions of Ender Inciarte and Erick Aybar , Freeman could stand to get more chances to be a run producer in 2016. Nick Markakis and Hector Olivera did not provide much in the way of power last season, but both men will be counted on to protect Freeman in the heart of the Atlanta lineup this year.

However the starting nine shakes out, the Braves are going to have a unique spring training in which they’ll get a look at a multitude of young players that could be a big part of the club’s future. One look around the Atlanta clubhouse at Champion Stadium illustrates the youth movement. Among those men are infielders Dansby SwansonOzzie Albies and Rio Ruiz as well as outfielders Mallex Smith and Braxton Davidson. While some, if not most, of those prospects may require more time in the minors, Atlanta has options coming through the system. That’s something that excites Freeman for the near future and beyond.

“Hopefully we can put together a good team here,” said Freeman of his 2016 outlook. “It’s going to be a fun year. [There’s] going to be a lot of exciting young players that a lot fans are going to get to see for the first time this year in a Braves uniform. I think everybody, as a fan, as a player, as a front office, everybody is looking forward to this year.”

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook. All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher).

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