Now that he’s had all those boney briars removed from his right elbow, Freddie Freeman at 30 has little reason to feel that his prime is not still out there, somewhere, over yonder hill.
In fact, Monday, as he was reporting to his 10th spring training as the Braves everyday first baseman, it seems that even if Freeman could strike such a bargain, he wouldn’t trade places with his 21-year-old self. As he reminded the media audience crowded around his new corner locker here, he’s in so much better shape now.
“I was 27 pounds heavier. I wish I was 220 back then. I was 248 in 2011,” said the man who has reversed the natural course of weight gain. He says he does something in the offseason called paleo, a diet, so I’m told, that dates back to those good ol’ days when people didn’t die from what they ate but rather from what ate them.
Well, he looks downright slender now. For heaven’s sake, man, have a Cheeto. Says he feels better than ever, which is just the kind of music you expect to hear at the start of spring training.
Of course, he said he felt OK, too, when his elbow was practically locking up at the end of last season and he was carrying some blatant struggles into the offseason.
“I really mean it now,” he smiled. “I think all you guys knew I was lying (at the end of 2019).”
We did. Everyone did.
Every year, the transformation of Freeman is something special to behold, both in physique and leadership. As he pared down the first, he beefed up the latter.
Freeman is the man who sets the tone for the clubhouse, and among other things, this spring that means:
Being all about Marcell Ozuna, the man brought in to hit behind Freeman in the lineup in place of Josh Donaldson: “I don’t see him as a .240 hitter, I just don’t (Ozuna hit .241 a season ago). He’s going to be a force; I think he is going to make our lineup that much deeper. It is going to make it very tough on opposing managers if they want to bring in a leftie to face me. I think it’s going to be the same thing as Josh last year. (Ozuna’s) going to pick right up where the 2019 lineup left off and he’s going to fit right in and it will be really, really good with him in the four-hole.
“We have a great, deep lineup. I think we’re going to score a lot of runs again.”
Being darn sure of his own capabilities: “I think I’ve told you guys my whole career if I stay healthy, I feel like the numbers will be there.” Even with the barking elbow, he had career highs last season in both home runs (38) and RBI (121).
Being stubborn: “I want to be healthy and play 162 games.” He has appeared in every game twice during his career. The slacker only played in 158 last year.
His manager, his contract newly extended through 2021, really respects Freeman’s devotion to every day, but, honestly, he’s going to have to force his first-baseman to take the occasional off day. Honestly, considering he was hurt and ineffectual in the NLDS last year (hitting .200), Freeman might have been better missing some of that, as well.
“We’ll talk about (playing time) as we go,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That’s just how guys were raised here. When you look at all the great players that came through here, they signed up to play the games.
“That’s a great trait to have when a guy comes in and wants to play every game.”
And being sick and tired of not winning a playoff series since 2001: “I think I take that (to heart) more than a lot of these (younger) guys. I was around for a long time. I know 2001, I get it. I know that’s all fans want. I’m trying.”
The Freeman at 20 could not have foreseen the huge role that is filled by this 30-year-old version. He certainly was setting no agendas then. He was far from serving in the position he is now, that of Minister of Hugs. Just as he was far distant from anyone’s MVP conversation.
“I don’t think I could have envisioned that being 20 years old, being around Chipper (Jones) and Billy Wagner and Tim Hudson, and (David) Ross, because, now, he led by talking,” Freeman added. “I couldn’t envision this at all. But am I happy it has gone like this? Very much so. It’s a good feeling that you have the respect of everyone around here. I don’t take that for granted.”
And listen to Freeman this day, reporting day for the Braves regulars, laying down the mandates. No question who’s leading this band.
Asked if, in the arc of the Braves rebuild, the time is now for them to win something in the postseason, Freeman answered: “I thought the ‘time was now’ last year.”
“It’s World Series or nothing; I think that’s every single year for us now,” he said.
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