LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s not uncommon for veteran players to report to spring training and not know everybody’s name. But this Braves camp has been at the extreme end of the “Hello, My Name Is …” name-tag spectrum, for reasons of both overall numbers and the blur of newbies.
“I’m still trying to figure out everybody’s name,” Freddie Freeman said, as he sat by his locker, looking around.
Just then, a player walks by.
“I have no idea who that guy is.”
(I see no reason to crush the lad’s spirit by identifying him here.)
Forty-nine of the 70 players on the Braves’ camp roster when spring training began weren’t in their camp last year. Only 21 survived management’s winter flush. There was a point when Freeman, the organization’s surviving recognizable everyday star, had his name come up in trade rumors and wondered if would be back. It wasn’t until he received a phone call from general manager John Coppolella and gave Freeman assurances that he wouldn’t be traded — or at least as much as any general manager can give assurances because sometimes they lie (or “change plans”) — that Freeman could feel somewhat secure.
“Coppy called me and said, ‘Don’t listen to that. It’s not going to happen,’” he said.
This was in November. Freeman had just gotten home after sitting for 7 1/2 hours in a dentist’s chair while having veneers put on his teeth. (Why veneers? “I like coffee and red wine too much,” he said.)
“I was still kind of drugged up when I was talking to Coppy,” Freeman said. “My wife said, ‘You said everything perfect, but you sounded like you were drunk. So I immediately texted my agent and said, ‘I need you to call Coppy and tell him I wasn’t drunk on a Tuesday at 4 p.m.’”
Freeman is happy to still be here. He never asked to be traded. He said he never even thought about asking out. That doesn’t mean the past 18 months haven’t been difficult: seeing friends traded, watching a roster shredded during this makeover, struggling with a wrist injury, experiencing a 96-loss season and all of the fan and media lampooning that goes with that.
There’s no guarantee 2016 will be any better. The Braves’ minor-league system has been rebuilt, so in theory this is when an organization should begin to ascend and win more games. But prospects are just prospects, until they’ve proved they can play in the majors. As Freeman acknowledged, “A lot of things have to go right,” and, “Everybody is going to write us off again.”
But he believes in the plan, and he’s ignoring the dire projections of another 66-ish-win season.
“All we can do as players is go out there and play every day and make them eat their words,” he said.
So you’ll take the over on 66?
“I’m going to take the over.”
Will you put something on that?
“I’ll just take the over and we can do an article about, “‘Ha!’ An article that just says, “Ha ha.”
He says he’s not worried about protection in the lineup, believing Hector Olivera and Nick Markakis will provide sufficient threats. He said the once-painful right wrist, which received about 10 pain-killing injections for an injury that limited him to 118 games, feels great and he’s committed to the team’s slow-and-deliberate rehab program in program. Freeman knows he came back too soon after the injury, saying, “It was a grind the last month and a half of the season. It hurt so bad that even when I did come back I couldn’t take batting practice.”
Freeman is a two-time All-Star. The team gave him an eight-year, $135 million contract in 2014, a long-term commitment they wouldn’t make to his close friend, Jason Heyward. A lot is on his shoulders, both on the field and off. He needs to be healthy, productive and provide a level of stability if the Braves are going to have any semblance of an offense.
The team has hoped Freeman would become a team leader, but he acknowledged last year that leading team meetings and being vocal doesn’t come naturally to him. “I play the game hard, and hopefully that’s an example. I’ve never been the rah-rah guy,” he said.
But this is where he wants to be. “I hope to retire a Brave,” he said.
And at no point during the winter, even following the trade of Andrelton Simmons, did he wonder, “Can I stick this out?”
“No, that never crossed my mind,” he said. “When I came out of high school the Braves said I could hit. Everybody else wanted me to pitch. They thought highly of me to move me to a position (first base) and bring me along, and then they got me here in three years, which is pretty much unheard of unless you’re Jason Heyward. Every time I knocked on the door, they opened it and let me come through. Three years later they give me an eight-year deal. Why would I ever want to leave? They’ve given me everything I’ve ever hoped and dreamed of. Just because you trade some of my friends, it’s going to make me want to leave? I never once thought of leaving the Braves.”
At some point, the dust will settle around this team. Then we’ll learn if sticking it out was worth it.
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