- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Freddie Freeman has the body of a left guard, or that of somebody who could move refrigerators or pianos for a living -- without a handcart. He looks like a Roman column.
Freeman is listed at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, and his sheer size might lead to some false impressions. He is not a Rob Deer or Dave Kingman type of hitter; rather, he has a nice, consistent swing, with an approach that allows him to take the ball the other way when needed. Last year, he hit .319, with 55 extra-base hits and 87 strikeouts in 519 at-bats, and a .378 on-base percentage. The Braves don't know whether he'll turn into a big-time power hitter, the kind of slugger who could blast 35 to 45 homers, but they are pretty sure he'll be a solid run producer. "He's going to hit," Chipper Jones said Wednesday, sitting in the dugout at the Braves' complex before their workout.
The Braves like the fact that going into the season, they have the kind of depth in their lineup -- Dan Uggla, Martin Prado, Jones, Jason Heyward, etc. -- that will allow them to hit Freeman near the bottom of their batting order and develop without pressure for production. (As opposed to the Mariners' Justin Smoak, who will be surrounded by marginal hitters, making the need for power from Smoak even more important for Seattle).
The other impression about Freeman, in just looking at him, is that he might not be adept defensively. But Braves talent evaluators were very pleased last year with Freeman's athleticism at first base, the improvement in his skills, the way he moves around. During Wednesday's drill, shortstop Alex Gonzalez bounced a throw in the dirt at first, and Freeman flicked a glove at it -- like a fly fisherman casting into the middle of a river -- and deftly snared it, drawing some response from teammates.
It remains to be seen how long it will take Freeman to get established in the big leagues, but the Braves are confident he will get there.
• Adam Wainwright pitched for the Braves before being traded for J.D. Drew, and so it was with a mixture of shock and sadness that folks with the Atlanta organization reacted upon hearing the news of his injury on Wednesday morning; they admire Wainwright for the type of person he is, the type of competitor he is. And, as Bobby Cox mentioned while watching the beginning of the Braves' workout, there is nothing more difficult to replace than a No. 1 starting pitcher.
Joe Nathan -- one of the AL's best closers, and a respected teammate and competitor -- went down with Tommy John surgery last spring, and the Twins mixed and matched and won with some of the replacements brought in by GM Bill Smith. When All-Star first baseman Justin Morneau went down, the Twins were able to plug that hole with Jim Thome and others taking more at-bats.
But to lose a No. 1 pitcher at this time of year is particularly devastating -- and remember, Wainwright is one of the best half-dozen pitchers in the majors. Over the past two seasons, only Felix Hernandez has a lower ERA than Wainwright's 2.53, among pitchers with more than 250 innings.
Tony La Russa's teams always compete, and somebody now will get an opportunity, whether it's a Kyle McClellan or Shelby Miller (though they may opt not to push Miller). The Cardinals could always look to sign one of the remaining free-agent starters, whether it be Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Bonderman, or they could call the Phillies about Joe Blanton, although Ruben Amaro continues to say that Blanton will be with his team on Opening Day. Derrick Goold has a rundown of possible candidates here.
But no matter who steps into the role, he cannot be what Adam Wainwright has been, and the ancillary concern for the Cardinals is for the others on the staff not to overextend themselves as they try to help fill the void. "The pressure will be there on the other guys, and you hope that they don't try to pitch through an injury," said a rival executive.
Wainwright has been throwing arguably the best breaking pitch in the majors -- as Carlos Beltran can attest -- and his use of this was noted by a couple of his former teammates, as they mused over his injury. "If you throw a curveball like that, you just never know when [the elbow] might give out," said one. "For all pitchers, really, it's just a matter of time, and you just don't know when."
From Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information, how Wainwright ranked in usage of his breaking ball. The highest percentage of breaking balls thrown last year among guys who threw over 1,500 pitches:
Brett Myers: 46.8
Chris Carpenter: 44.8
Adam Wainwright: 43.8
Important contextual note: Wainwright's mark of 43.8 percent is well above the league average. The league-average mark for 2010 was 24.8 percent. The league batted .183 against Wainwright's breaking stuff. And the list of the most breaking balls thrown last year, total:
Brett Myers: 1,619
Chris Carpenter: 1,589
Dan Haren: 1,482
Adam Wainwright: 1,471
Tommy Hanson: 1,296
There will be a lot of talk in St. Louis about what Jonny Gomes did after hearing the news of the Wainwright injury. Given how aggressive La Russa's teams have been historically in retaliating when they feel the need to retaliate, Gomes will probably want to stay loose in the batters' box when he faces the Cardinals. It doesn't really matter now what his intent was; it only matters how his actions are perceived by the Cardinals.
Gomes says he wasn't singing about Wainwright.
• Some more from Braves camp:
1. Chipper Jones is not limited in anything he does on the field; the only thing he hasn't done, to this point, is slide.
2. The Braves still would love for Craig Kimbrel to seize the majority of the closer opportunities, with Jonny Venters in place as the safety net. Remember, Kimbrel struck out 40 in 20 2/3 innings at the end of last season.
3. Jason Heyward said his thumb problem, which hampered him at the plate for much of last spring, is better. Folks with the team think the injury had a significant impact on Heyward, despite his remarkable rookie season, because it impacted his ability to get to pitches throw inside, and perhaps affected his swing along the way.
4. Tim Hudson threw live batting practice Wednesday, and as usual it looked like the hitters only had the tops seams of the ball to swing at, as Hudson threw pitch after pitch that dove in the strike zone.
5. Peter Moylan, one of the NL's best setup men, feels much better after dropping a bunch of weight in the offseason. Most pitchers who throw with a lower arm angle, as Moylan does, tend to be thin guys, from Kent Tekulve to Brad Ziegler, which suggests that Moylan will be helped by his increased flexibility. "I had to [pitch] around this," he joked, grabbing onto his belly. Moylan is as self-deprecating as anyone you'll meet, and he has described his condition thusly: "I was a fat pig."
6. Cory Gearrin -- a 24-year-old reliever who has never pitched in the majors -- threw batting practice, with his unusual delivery: The right-hander throws sidearm, like Moylan, but early in his delivery, he seems to take a step toward the first base side of the rubber with his land foot. This is what feels comfortable, he explained, and he's had his best years in 2009-10; pitching in Triple-A last year, Gearrin posted a 3.36 ERA, striking out 66 and walking 32 in 80.1 innings.
Gearrin has developed a changeup that is a version of his two-seam grip, with the ball sliding off the last fingers of his hand, rather than driven by his index and middle fingers. But finding a decent off-speed pitch -- critical for right-handed sidearmers, as they look for ways to combat left-handed hitters -- hasn't always been seamless. Gearrin recalled trying a new changeup grip while throwing a bullpen session in the Cape Cod League -- and firing a pitch directly into the woods, on the side, as he had hit an errant tee shot at a right angle. His coach at that time told him to forget about the changeup and stick with his fastball-slider combo.
Dings and dents
4. Joe Mauer had a shot in his knee the other day. I e-mailed Twins GM Bill Smith regarding his level of concern about the need for the injection. His response: "Mauer received a shot of medication designed to add some lubrication to the knee joint. He had a scope in the off-season and I believe it was discussed then that this might be something to do early in the spring. It is not a set-back, but rather a precautionary move to help him as we move forward through Spring Training. He participated in today's workout without any problem."
6. A Brewers catcher broke a finger.
The battle for jobs
1. Tom D'Angelo addresses the question of who should be the Marlins' closer.
3. Jim Riggleman has set his exhibition rotation.
4. The Pirates' Alex Presley wants to win a job.
7. Gomes is battling for playing time.
8. A Cuban defector is trying to make the Athletics, writes Susan Slusser.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The presumption among folks who know Mark Buehrle has been that he would embrace a chance to pitch for the Cardinals at some point in his career -- so the timing of this Scott Merkin story, in which he says he'd be open to a trade, is interesting. But until Jake Peavy demonstrates he's healthy and ready to bounce back, it's hard to imagine the White Sox even thinking about moving a starter, because the rotation needs to be the backbone of what they do this year.
2. Dave Seminara explains how teams work through visa issues.
3. The trustee in the Mets' Madoff case could add charges in an amended suit, experts say.
4. The Braves are not looking to trade a starting pitcher.
5. Heard this, from sources: The Yankees did not inquire about Tim Hudson. Although I'm sure they'd love to have him.
From the Mailbag
The other day I mentioned the new sign in the Yankees' clubhouse -- "Compete" -- and how the draconian George Steinbrenner would have never approved of such a benign message. Some readers offered thoughts of other signs GMS would have approved.
"Win, or else." -- A.J., Hillsboro, Ore.
"If the '72 Dolphins could do it, so can this team!" -- Frank, Bayonne, N.J.
• Wrote the other day about Yankees lefty Manny Banuelos, and John Harper has more today about his latest impressive throwing session, which apparently was outstanding.
• The Mariners have a bunch of tall pitchers, writes Jerry Brewer.
• The Royals' farm system got its best ranking ever.
• Cole Hamels is getting a lot of buzz in Phillies camp. If you wanted to pick out some sleeper candidates for the Cy Young Award, Hamels might be a good place to start. Remember, early in the year, he'll be matching up against a lot of guys at the back end of other teams' rotations.
• The Rockies disagree with Las Vegas' projections for them.
• The Indians think their bullpen will be better, writes Paul Hoynes.
• An injury to an Arizona State baserunner hasn't changed a bad habit of some Angels, writes Mike DiGiovanna.
• The Rangers' new hitting coach is not into overhauling swings.
• The Curt Young era has started in Boston, as Scott Lauber writes.
• Fredi Gonzalez is surrounded by ex-managers on his staff.
• For Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry, it happens every spring, writes Harvey Araton.
• Got a chance to catch up at Braves camp with Dave Sheinin, the Washington Post baseball columnist who is a fellow Vanderbilt alum and still the best-singing writer in America.
And today will be better than yesterday.
While massive, Freddie Freeman isn't likely to become a big-time power source for Atlanta. What he could be is a long-term, solid-hitting solution at first base, and the Braves have a plan. Plus, reaction to Adam Wainwright's injury.