Saturday, September 23, 2017

Braves' Freeman back at first base after July hot corner experiment

As America was celebrating Independence Day, Freddie Freeman and the Atlanta Braves had another reason to celebrate. The former All-Star returned to the Braves lineup after spending nearly two full months on the disabled list.

During a May 17 home match-up with the Toronto Blue Jays at Sun Trust Park, Freeman suffered a fractured wrist when he was drilled by Jays’ pitcher Aaron Loup.

The loss appeared devastating for a Braves team that was already struggling early in the 2017 season. Atlanta would go on to win 8-4 following Freeman’s injury, but the victory raised their record to 16-21 while sitting eight games off the pace of the NL East leading Washington Nationals.

Furthermore, they were five games out in the NL Wildcard race. Losing their best hitter appeared to be a death blow. Freeman was leading the NL in home runs, and was near the top of the league leader board in several other offensive categories.

Manager Brian Snitker’s club would indeed struggle for a while, going 13-16 over the first month without their star first baseman in the lineup.

But then something unexpected began to happen. The Braves began to win regularly. Consecutive walk-off wins against the Miami Marlins on June 17 and 18 sparked a stretch in which they would win 11 of 14 games.

That was the team Freeman was returning to on July 4. But instead of returning to the lineup as a first baseman, the position he had played for the entirety of his eight-year career, he returned as a third baseman.

Turns out that during his absence, the Braves came to believe that they had a hitter who could step in and provide production at the first base position in 28-year old Matt Adams. However, third base had become increasingly problematic.

When the season began, it was hoped that Adonis Garcia, a veteran from Cuba, would man the position. In 2016, Garcia had been the regular there, starting 123 games at third base. He hit for a .273 average, driving 14 homers with 65 RBI and 65 runs scored in what was essentially his first full MLB season.

But in 2017, the 32-year old Garcia was struggling badly. Through May 15 he was hitting for just a .237/.278/.348 slash line when an injured hand drove him to the DL as well. He returned on June 2, going 6-10 in his first two games back. But then an 0-9 over the following two presaged a trip back to the DL with the hand/finger injury. He would not return until September.

The Braves called prospect Rio Ruiz to the big leagues for a shot at manning the third base position. The 23-year old rookie has hit just .203/.275/.305 with three home runs over 45 games and 142 plate appearances.

Clearly neither Garcia or Ruiz was going to be an answer if the suddenly contending Braves were going to improve and possibly make a run at a postseason berth.

That’s when Atlanta hit on a radical idea. Why not try Freddie Freeman at third base when he comes back? After all, Freeman had played third base for five games early in his minor league career, as well as back in high school.

Freeman diligently put in the necessary work on the left side of the infield after his cast came off. "I'm 100 percent go on it,” he said per an AP report on June 21. “My mindset is coming back as a third baseman."

In the end, the experiment proved to be just that, a temporary experiment. Freeman played the hot corner for the entire month of July. Over 136 innings he handled 35 chances and made just one error. Braves watchers noted that, while he didn’t embarrass himself, he never looked comfortable.

While he was still productive offensively, his hitting wasn’t at the level he had established prior to the DL stint. During that month of July, Freeman hit for a .278/.350/.511 slash with five homers, 15 RBI, and 15 runs scored.

The Braves went just 8-15 during the month, fading from 6.5 games out in the NL Wildcard race to a distant 11 back. Adams bat had cooled, and the team decided that putting their best lineup out moving forward involved returning Freeman to his natural first base position.

The Phillies are in Atlanta this weekend for their final road series of the 2017 season. Freeman will play first base during the three games at Sun Trust Park.

At third base, the Phillies are likely to see Johan Camargo more than any other Atlanta option. The 23-year old utility infielder has been given a shot to play regularly there during this final month of September.

Camargo is hitting .368/.385/.526 during the month. Over the course of the season he has played 39 games at third, handling 89 chances with just two errors.

Atlanta still does not have an obvious answer at the hot corner. Their top prospect at the position is 20-year old Austin Riley, who is likely still at least a couple of years away from a big league shot. It could still prove to be Ruiz, who has a good glove and whose hitting could still come around.

I believe we are more likely to see the Braves make a play for a big ticket free agent such as Manny Machado. They could even try to swing a deal at next year’s trade deadline, assuming the Baltimore Orioles can’t ink their star to a long-term deal.
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Follow Matthew on Twitter: @MatthewVeasey
BY MATTHEW VEASEY
Contributing Writer
matthew.veasey@verizon.net

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