April 19, 2012
On the Beat
The Cardinals had just won an improbable World Series championship, and the on-field celebration was barely over last October when David Freese was ushered into the media interview room at Busch Stadium. The third baseman sat on the stage with a look of disbelief on his face as he answered questions about living out a dream. The St. Louis area native was the named the Most Valuable Player of the Cardinals' win over the Rangers in the World Series, adding to the MVP trophy he won in the National League Championship Series.
Yet it was hard for Freese to absorb it all at that time. A series of injuries and off-field incidents had stunted his growth as a player and person, and it had started to look like Freese would never live up to his potential.
Nearly six months later, it has finally sunk it for the third baseman.
"There hasn't been a day that's gone by that somebody doesn't remind me about it," Freese said with a smile. "Not that I mind."
Freese has become a major celebrity in his hometown and at least a minor celebrity nationally because of his post-season heroics. Yet the fact of the matter is Freese turns 28 on April 28 and has logged just 705 plate appearances over four seasons, the type of profile that makes him either a late bloomer or a run-of-the-mill player who had a hot stretch of well-timed plate appearances last fall.
Freese has looked like a late bloomer in the early part of this season. In his first nine games and 38 plate appearances, he hit .371/.421/.629 with three home runs and a .340 True Average. PECOTA, though, does not see Freese emerging as a star; it projects him to hit .274 this season with 16 homers, 68 RBI, and a .272 TAv.
Scouts are mixed on Freese's future.
Said a pro-Freese scout: "The only thing that stands between him and stardom is health. He's a good hitter with pop, and he's a good defensive third baseman. He showed last October just how good he can be."
Said an anti-Freese scout (who should probably be called Prestone): "He's an average player at best. I don't think he's anything special. He's a solid major-league third baseman, but he's not going to suddenly become a star. Run-of-the-mill guy."
Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who retired two days after the World Series ended, believes Freese's mental approach gives him a better-than-even chance to succeed in the long term.
"He never gets overjoyed with himself," La Russa said. "I guarantee you that the success he had last season had no affect on him as a player or a person."
New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny confirmed that, saying Freese worked as hard as any player in his team's spring training camp.
"He came in with the perfect attitude," Matheny said. "He appreciated what he did last year, but he also realized that last year was over. He put all the good memories in the past and concentrated on becoming a better player this season."
The path Freese's career takes could be an interesting study in the power of positive thinking. Confidence admittedly hasn't been one of Freese's strong points, either in his belief in his on-field ability or in choosing people he surrounded himself with away from the ballpark. Yet little should add to player's confidence than shining on baseball's biggest stage, and Freese did that last season while also distancing himself from his past alcohol-related problems. Having had nearly a half-year to digest what happened last October, Freese believes he is a different player, a better player.
"When you're facing the types of pitchers we were facing game in and game out when we were playing the Phillies, the Brewers, and the Rangers, it was a really tough task, and it wasn't easy to go into those ballparks in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Texas because the fans were loud. It was a little bit intimidating," Freese said. "To be able to succeed in those situations was special. I really believe I can succeed in any situation now. You can't duplicate that kind of experience, and I learned a lot from it."
A few minutes with Rays manager Joe Maddon
On if the Rays have the best starting rotation in the major leagues: "I don't know if it's for me to say who has the best rotation, but I will say that I am very happy with our five starters—and the starting pitching depth we have both on the major-league roster and in the minor leagues—and would take our guys against anyone else's starting pitching. The best part about our rotation is there is upside there. I don't think we've seen the best of David Price yet, and he's already proven he is awfully good. I certainly don't think we've seen the best of Jeremy Hellickson, and he was the American League Rookie of the Year last season. It's exciting to think what Matt Moore can become. James Shields is an undisputed leader, and Jeff Niemann is a very good pitcher."
On Moore attempting to live up to the hype surrounding his rookie season: "I know that Matt Moore had one of the best starts in post-season history last year (shutting out the Rangers in seven innings in Game One of the American League Division Series), and he is not going to rest on that. If you have a chance to talk him, you'll learn very quickly that he is a very special young man. He is not only very talented, but he is very intelligent and is very driven. Plus, he has great stuff, and that always helps, too."
On adding Carlos Pena and Luke Scott to the lineup: "As much as I respect and appreciated the efforts of Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman made to our club last season, we really felt we needed to add more power in our lineup. It's great to have Carlos back. He's had the best years of his career with the Rays. He is someone who should be a Ray. He's back, and it's like he never left. Luke has proven to be a consistent power source when he is healthy, and we feel good about adding him to our lineup."
Angels shortstop Erick Aybar: "They're paying him for defense because he's a top-of-the-line shortstop. He has good range, a good arm, and he can make the tough play as well as anybody. He is what he is offensively at this point in his career, a guy who'll put the bat on the ball consistently but not do a whole lot else. He's so good defensively, and the Angels' lineup is so deep that they can carry him."
Giants first baseman Brandon Belt: "I keep hearing talk that Belt is the guy the Giants will dangle if they decide to trade for a closer, and I think that would be a mistake. This kid can really hit. He might not pop 30-35 home runs a year like you'd ideally like from your first baseman, but he'll hit .300 with 20-25 homers a year. He's a helluva hitter, and he's going to have a good career. I hope, for the Giants' sake, that they understand what they have."
Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman: "I love him out of the bullpen, but he needs to be starting. They've got to wonder what he could if they gave him 200 innings. I think at some point they need to give him a look in the rotation because you're talking a guy who has the stuff to be a No. 1, even if he doesn't fully develop his changeup. I mean, this guy could win multiple Cy Youngs if he gets the chance."
Twins designated hitter/first baseman Justin Morneau: "I know it kind of screws up their lineup if they have to use Morneau as the DH instead of Ryan Doumit, but the Twins really need Morneau in the middle of their order. If keeping him off the field as much as possible keeps him healthy, then the Twins have no choice but to keep him at DH. If they lose him again this year, they've got no chance to be respectable."
Mets center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis: "He's doesn't have one great tool, but he's the type of player who does everything well. He can pop you some home runs, he'll steal some bases, and he plays a decent center field, though I like more on a corner. He plays hard and he's fundamentally sound, and that helps him play above his tools. I like him, and I think he's going to have a decent big-league career. And I think he could really become a big deal in New York because the female fans are going to love him. He's a good-looking kid."
Five personal observations