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Is David Freese a top-10 option at third?

6/29/2011

The other day, I was asked which National League third baseman I'd vote as starter in the All-Star Game. Hey, it wasn't so easy, assuming one looks statistically at this year and doesn't merely base the decision on reputation and career accomplishments. David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman and Pablo Sandoval have missed significant time this season; Casey McGehee has been terrible; Aramis Ramirez hasn't hit for much power until the past few days; and leading vote getter Placido Polanco is pretty much all batting average, and it's a below-.300 batting average anyway. Chipper Jones is a nice story coming back, but he's not having a great season. Whom would you choose? Where's Mike Schmidt?

The top six third-base-eligibles on the ESPN Fantasy Player Rater all play for American League squads. The leading NL options entering Tuesday were, believe it or not, Arizona's Ryan Roberts, Colorado's Ty Wigginton and San Diego Padres on-base machine Chase Headley (and I chose him thanks to his .400 OBP). Statistically and with a minimum of 25 at-bats at the position, the NL OPS leader at third base by 50 points is actually St. Louis Cardinals option David Freese. Hey, wasn't Freese activated off the disabled list and in the lineup Tuesday night? Why yes, yes he was!

I admit to being on the fence about how to evaluate Freese, who singled twice Tuesday while hitting in the No. 5 lineup spot. I've believed since the spring of 2009 that he can hit for average and 15-20 home runs annually, although it's tough to tell because he's rarely on the field. Over 26 games and 91 at-bats this season, he's hitting .363 with a .870 OPS, but with little power and a poor walk-to-strikeout rate. Freese is unlikely to hit .363 for long; his other two at-bats Tuesday were strikeouts. Still, last season he hit .296 in 240 at-bats, and he hit for average and with power in the minor leagues. At a seriously watered-down fantasy position, it's kind of easy to envision Freese's making his mark -- perhaps with a .300 batting average -- as a top-10 option.

Of course, Freese needs to stay on the field, and although 27 isn't necessarily old, the truth is the Cardinals have prospect Zack Cox in Double-A, perhaps a year away. Freese missed more than half of last season with a serious ankle injury, and the plan was to play him two of every three games this season. Then Atlanta Braves right-hander Scott Linebrink busted Freese's left hand with a pitch two months ago. I hate calling players brittle, especially when the injuries aren't connected, but ... Freese isn't making this easy, either, with annual DL stints.

I'm sure people will wonder why I chose Headley over, I suppose, Ramirez, Jones, Polanco and pals. Look, Ramirez might be the pick, as he's hitting for power all of a sudden. Then again, for real life and fantasy, Headley's .300 batting average is valuable. Roberts ranks just a tad ahead on the Player Rater, and he has more power and speed, but I think Headley might keep hitting .300. The age-old theory is that real and fantasy teams need more than two home runs from a third baseman, but numbers are numbers, right? When Chone Figgins was good, it didn't matter that he was a third baseman. I can't hate on Headley for the lack of power. I'd like 15 home runs, but I doubt he'll hit that many.

Regardless, I still hold out hope that Freese will hit for power in the big leagues; unlike Headley, he can't really blame his home ballpark. Freese doesn't have great plate discipline, and he did most of his damage last year against left-handed pitching. He's really a work in progress. Let's just say I'm paying close attention, and I'm sure Cardinals fans would prefer to see him at the hot corner over Nick Punto and Daniel Descalso. The Cardinals have tried myriad options at third base; Albert Pujols and Allen Craig played some there and are currently hurt. Freese was supposed to be the answer, and if he can just stay healthy, I think he will be.