Cue the Johnny Nash tune: Freddie Freeman can see clearly now and the pain is gone.
The Braves slugger reported to spring training Friday and had all positive news regarding after undergoing Lasik surgery on both eyes in October and spending the winter strengthening the left wrist he broke in May, an injury that landed Freeman on the disabled list for seven weeks and spoiled a career-best, MVP-type start to his season.
“I got Lasik, so I’m looking forward to testing that out,” said Freeman, 28, who was bothered by blurry vision for years and frequently changed contacts during games in dry or windy conditions. “Everything feels good so far hitting in the offseason. I feel great. I worked out hard, I concentrated on my left wrist, getting that strong. Everything feels good, body feels great and I’m ready to go.”
The Braves’ best player is excited about the season and eager for the team to take a step forward in its rebuilding project after three consecutive seasons with at least 90 losses. He hopes that everyone else in the clubhouse is just as excited and understands what needs to happen for the Braves to end the frustrations the players and their fans endured through difficult recent summers.
“I see a lot of young guys that need to take the next step,” Freeman said. “I saw (catcher Tyler) Flowers said the same thing a couple of days ago, and he hit that spot-on: We’ve got a lot of guys that need to take that next step, that got their feet wet last year, and we need them to step up this year. Obviously health is a big factor with us, we need to stay healthy.
“It’s going to be fun to see the young arms with the sprinkling of a (veteran pitcher) Brandon McCarthy in there; see what Kaz (former All-Star pitcher Scott Kazmir) has to offer, too. But I think everybody around here has been frustrated for four years, and I think everybody in this clubhouse wants to get back to the winning ways, and anything less than getting to the playoffs, in my opinion, every single year, is a missed season.
“So that’s the goal this year, and I don’t expect us to go out there and not try to get to the playoffs.”
Before being hit by a fastball May 17 that broke his wrist in his 47th game, Freeman led the National League in home runs (14) and ranked second in on-base percentage (.461) slugging percentage (.748) and extra-base hits (26), fifth in walks (27) and sixth in batting average (.341). The only Braves player in the Atlanta era with more homers in the team’s first 36 games was the legendary Hank Aaron.
He returned three weeks sooner than expected from the fracture, cutting short a minor league rehab assignment so he could play in series against the Astros and Nationals before the All-Star break. Freeman had some highly productive hitting stretches after coming back, but never his full strength and had increased soreness and weakness in the wrist as the season wore on.
The wrist made it feel like he was “swinging a wet newspaper” at times, Freeman said, but he declined to rest or end his season early even after the Braves slipped from the wild-card race by the end of July. He still hit .307 with 28 home runs in 117 games for the season and posted a career-best .989 OPS, a testament to the first baseman’s outsized talent and pain tolerance, and to just how spectacular was the start of his season before the injury.
He hit .292 with 39 extra-base hits (14 homers) and an .890 OPS in 80 games after returning from the disabled list. Solid production for a good major league hitter, but far below the expectations of Freeman, one of the game’s elite hitters.
The offseason provided the rest time that Freeman was unwilling to take while his team was still playing in 2017.
“I started working out a week after the season. I didn’t hit for two months, and I think that was perfect timing,” he said. “I could still feel it when I was working out the first month, but obviously that went away as I got stronger and stronger. So I feel great, I’m ready to go, I have no reservations about my wrist at all. ...
“When you have four months off, you feel like you can get it back into form, and sometimes you just don’t know. I didn’t know how it was going to react when I went into that cage in mid-December, I didn’t know if it was going to hurt still. So when I took those first few swings it was like, oh, this is great. It was like a two-ton boulder came off my shoulders. When you work as hard as you can to get back to where you were and you accomplish that, it’s a great feeling actually coming in. I can’t wait to get into that cage here in about 20 minutes and start going again.”
When a reporter mentioned that Freeman looked a little bigger and stronger in the upper body, he smiled.
“Thanks, that was the goal,” he said. “So hopefully I can last the whole year and be healthy.”
One change to his usual offseason workout regimen was something that his friend Dan Uggla, the Popeye-armed former Brave, approved of. (In fact, the two still work out together occasionally, Freeman said).
“I always did forearms like two or three times a week, but this time I did it every single day,” Freeman said. “I made sure to overkill them. I wanted to overkill them, to make sure I was ready, where I could look at myself in the mirror when I got here this first day and say, I did everything I could. So I feel like I did that and I’m ready to go.”
Freeman waited until he was 27 to have the Lasik eye surgery, as recommended by eye specialists he consulted.
“They always wait to wait three years for your eyes to stop changing, and that’s exactly what I did,” he said. “They say at about 27 years old, too. I’ve been counting down the years for me to be able to do it because ever since I had those eye problems in 2012, there have been certain cities where my contacts dry out, and it’s been a real struggle. I’m looking forward to that. I’ve had some windy days in Atlanta and been testing it out, and I’ve been able to see clearly even though my eyes were a little dry, so that was what I was going for and hoping for.
“We took the golf cart out yesterday and I had wind blowing in my eyes, and it felt great that I could see. I’ve been testing it here and there with different scenarios and I’ve had no problems. I can see. I can wake up and see, which is the greatest thing ever. I don’t have to reach for glasses anymore. It’s been pretty cool. They said everything’s cool, I’ve had multiple check-ups and no dry spots, no nothing. I’m ready to go.”
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