His is the pleasant, usually smiling face of the current Braves, but for much of the summer and fall of 2015 Freddie Freeman bore a grimace or disgruntled expression.
After playing all 162 games and nearly every inning of a second consecutive All-Star season in 2014, Freeman struggled for much of 2015 with an aching wrist, and his absence or decreased performance coincided with one of the worst half-seasons in franchise history as the Braves plummeted from a 42-42 start to a 67-95 final record.
A battery of injections and cutting-edge treatment couldn’t get Freeman through the wrist problems. The big first baseman, who led the majors in innings played in 2014, had two stints on the disabled list in 2015 and missed 44 games in 2015.
After batting .303 with 117 extra-base hits, 187 RBIs and a .390 OBP in 1,158 at-bats in during the 2013-2014 seasons, Freeman hit .276 with 45 extra-base hits, 66 RBIs and a .370 OBP in 416 at-bats in 2015.
He totaled 481 plate appearances and 118 games in 2015, after never having fewer than 620 PAs or 147 games in his previous four full seasons. And yet, Freeman still led the Braves in home runs with 18 — no teammate had more than 10 — and in RBIs, as no other member of the majors’ lowest-scoring team had as many as 60 RBIs.
Freeman’s .376 average with runners in scoring position was 20 points above the Braves’ next-best, but his average in those RISP situations with two outs slipped from .310 with a .508 OBP in 2014 to .233 with a .421 OBP in 2015 (teams still pitched around him plenty in those situations).
After the rough season was over, Freeman, 26, watched as the Braves continue trading away established player, including longtime teammate and defensive shortstop extraordinaire Andrelton Simmons and Shelby Miller, who’d been a hard-luck ace in his one Braves season after coming over in a November 2014 trade for Freeman’s best friend, Jason Heyward.
But through all the trades of this and the previous offseasons, and other trades including those in July 2015, Freeman never complained publicly about the Braves’ strip-down rebuild job. It was undertaken to rebuild the farm system for long-term success and ostensibly aimed at being a contender when the team moves into a new ballpark in 2017.
No one would have blamed him if Freeman had complained, seeing as this wasn’t what he expected when he signed the longest and largest contract in franchise history in February 2014, an eight-year, $135 million deal that runs through 2021 and includes salaries of $20.5 million-$22 million over the final five years of the contract.
Pitcher Julio Teheran and Freeman are the only Braves left standing from the group that got multi-year contract extensions in 2014 from general manager Frank Wren, who was fired late in the 2014 season. No major league team has come close to as many player-personnel changes as the Braves in the past 15 months.
Now that the dust seems mostly settled, the Braves have traded away most of their large contracts, restocked their system with top prospects including a bevy of power pitchers, and vowed not to trade Freeman – new GM John Coppolella basically put up his right arm as collateral – where is Freeman’s mindset as the Braves prepare for spring training in less than a month? And perhaps most importantly, how’s the wrist?
I talked with Freeman about all this during an interview Wednesday (Jan. 20), a day after he took his first swings of the offseason and reported no discomfort in the wrist. This is the first part of a three-part interview that will run in this space over the next few days.
Q. It sounds like you’re getting excited about finally being able to move past this wrist injury. Was it a difficult situation to deal with as it lingered for so much of the 2015 season?
A. Yeah, it’s been a long road. Since June it’s just been a day-to-day thing. I was getting frustrated a couple of months into the offseason, into December, because I still had pain. But all of a sudden I turned the corner in about mid-December. I was moving between houses, lifting boxes and stuff, and all of a sudden it stopped hurting when I was lifting boxes. That’s when that little quote came out (in a story by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal) about how I felt 100 percent healthy. A couple of words got left out – it was 100 percent healthy on day-to-day activities, not baseball activities.
So I got another injection from Dr. (Gary) Lourie around Dec. 20, because I was having pain in my wrist again in the same spot. So we really found out what it was; it was an impingement on the side of wrist, where two bones are hitting each other. You usually clear that up by cortisone injections, and if a cortisone injection doesn’t work that’s when you get surgery. But obviously the cortisone worked this last time. I waited 11 days until Dec. 31 to swing. I was only supposed to swing a couple of times, but I swung 10 times, dry swings, and I had no pain. So that was a big relief for me, and I didn’t swing at all again until yesterday (Tuesday), when I went to Turner Field and swung in front of the trainers. I swung 30 times and had no pain again, so tomorrow (Thursday) I’ll take more dry swings and if I still have no pain I’ll also hit off the tee.
(ADDENDUM: On Thursday, Freeman took 30 “dry swings” and hit 25 balls off a tee. “Nice to finally swing a bat with no pain after seven months,” he said.)
Was the recent injection in a different area than the previous series of injections you got during the season, is that why it worked better this time?
I had two components to the injury in June. You know how I had that pain on top of my wrist? That’s where I was getting all the PRP (platelet-rich plasma injections) and all that stuff put in, because I was having pain on top of my wrist. That’s why it took so long, and when we got that cleared up I think I was just a little weak on the left side (of the wrist), and that flared up again when I came off the DL, that’s what started hurting again, the impingement area. And I’ve had the impingement actually since 2009. That’s the injury that I had, and every year I usually get a cortisone shot at the end of the year and I’m good. But I had two different injuries, and that’s what took so long for this one to heal.
So now it looks like you’ve finally got it cleared up, with a month to go before spring training. Are you still a little bit leery, at all worried about it coming back, or are you pretty confident it’s taken care of this time?
Yeah, I’m pretty confident. Obviously when you have pain or something for six months, you’re still a little leery of what’s going to happen when you have the every-day grind of spring training and getting into the season. I think once I get going in spring training and getting games started, I think that’s what is going to, like, once I take maybe an awkward swing and I have no pain, I think that’s all it’ll take. I just need to get going and realize it’s good, get in games to have everything get off my mind. That’s obviously not going to happen until spring training, but right now I have no pain. I swung yesterday, I have no soreness today, so I’m pretty excited about it.
Last year, the second half of the season was pretty frustrating. It’s nice to have a clear mind and be ready to go for spring training. I don’t know if I’m going to be like 100 percent ready to go (for spring training), it might be a little bit slower. Usually I’m already taking flips and hitting off the tee right now getting ready for spring training, and I obviously haven’t done that yet. I don’t want to rush it trying to be ready for Feb. 25 (first full-squad workout). There’s no reason to. So I think we’re going to go a little bit slower, and if I am ready by Feb. 25 that’s great, but if I’m not, I don’t think I’ll miss any games or anything. I just might not be very good for the first few games of spring training.
(Parts 2 and 3 of the interview will run in this space Friday and Saturday, including how Freeman feels about the Braves’ chances in 2016 and beyond and his opinion of the team making so many trades.)