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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Freeman thinks Braves will be good soon, then stay good

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Freddie Freeman is the last position player left from the Braves’ 2013 division-title team, has six years left on his eight-year, $135 million contract, and is coming off a 95-loss season that started well for him and the team before spiraling into a nightmarish second half for the Braves and frustrations and concerns for Freeman about his injured wrist.

Freddie Freeman watches a ball sail out of the park during his career-best 2013 season when he was 5th in NL MVP balloting. After consecutive All-Star seasons, he was slowed by a nagging wrist injury and missed 44 games in 2015. (AP photo)

Freddie Freeman watches a ball sail out of the park during his career-best 2013 season when he was 5th in NL MVP balloting. After consecutive All-Star seasons, he was slowed by a nagging wrist injury and missed 44 games in 2015. (AP photo)

Not to mention more exits for some of his good friends and longtime teammates via the Braves trade machine.

So what is the status of Freeman’s mind and body as he prepares for 2016 spring training? Braves general manager John Coppolella said repeatedly this winter that Freeman wouldn’t be traded, and to the surprise of a legion of we’ve-heard-that-before skeptics, Freeman indeed wasn’t shipped away. And now his wrist finally feels healthy.

I talked with Freeman last week about the status of his wrist – he hit balls off a tee Thursday, his first pain-free swings in seven months – and about the upcoming season and his status as the last man standing among position players from the 2013 division-title team.

The first part of a three-part interview ran here on AJC.com Thursday, with Freeman discussing the recent improvement of his wrist. The second part of the interview ran here Friday, in which Freeman talked about how difficult it was to miss so much time and have his durability questioned.

He hit .276 with a .370 OBP, 18 home runs and 3.4 wins above replacement (WAR), the kind of season that most run-of-the-mill major leaguers would be thrilled to have once in their careers.

But Freeman, of course, is no average major leaguer. He signed the biggest contract in Braves history in February 2014, which brought with it soaring and often unfair expectations, the kind of stuff that goes to face-of-the-franchise players, as Freeman was widely regarded once he got that deal the same week that Jason Heyward got a two-year contract (Heyward made it halfway through that deal before being traded a year from free agency).

His consecutive All-Star seasons included a fifth-place National League MVP finish and .319/.396/.501 slash line in ’13, and then 65 extra-base hits in a franchise-record 1,449 innings played (all 162 games) in ’14.

But Freeman had two stints on the disabled list in 2015 and missed 44 games. He played all 66 games through June 17, hitting .299 with 12 homers, 41 RBIs, a .367 OBP and .520 slugging percentage. He  was on pace for 49 doubles, 29 homers, 100 RBIs and 105 runs. Then he got hurt and played in only 52 of 96 games the rest of the way.

Here in the third and final part of the interview, Freeman discusses the status of the team and his belief that the Braves can surprise a lot of people this season and aren’t far from becoming a consistent contender.

Q. It was a 95-loss season, the worst here in more than a quarter-century, and yet you guys were 42-42 before the injuries – you and Jason Grilli prior to the All-Star break – and then the trades in late July. The Braves played .500 ball until just past the halfway point of the season.

A. Yeah, and I think that’s going to be the same thing — people obviously aren’t going to pick us to win this season with the Mets and the Nationals, and the Marlins with Jose Fernandez back being healthy all year and Stanton healthy. People are going to overlook us again, but that’s what they did last year and we were three games out going into July, until that five-game losing streak right before the All-Star break kind of knocked us off pace. But I think that’s what we’re going to be this year. I think with Inciarte and Aybar at the top of the lineup, they can get on base and create havoc. So maybe it might be able to move Nick down to more a drive and hit-and-run guy like he was in Baltimore, even though he was still hitting 1-2 there. But I think him being completely healthy, and Olivera having a whole year, hopefully he can settle in for us. Jace Peterson had his problems at the end of the year with his wrist, so hopefully he’s 100 percent healthy. We’ve got some guys. It’s like every year — we need these things to line up, and obviously they didn’t line up for us last year.

Plenty of “ifs” remain, but do you think that if Nick Markakis is stronger — if he regains some strength from lifting that he couldn’t do last winter after neck surgery — and if newcomers Erick Aybar and Ender Inciarte produce at the top in front of you – it could be a pretty decent lineup?

Yeah, I think the thing last year, it wasn’t very consistent. We were missing parts every day, so all of a sudden Nick’s hitting leadoff, then he’s he’s hitting third and I’m hitting fourth, then all of a sudden I’m hitting third and he’s hitting fourth, then Nick’s back up to first. No one could really get comfortable because we just had so many mix-and-match pieces. So hopefully this year it’s more of a consistent lineup that we can put out there every single day and then more people will get comfortable and settle in. Because we’re going to have a young team again, with a sprinkle of veterans like Pierzynski, Swisher, Bourn, Kelly Johnson. Everybody else pretty much is young. We’re going to be out there hopefully able to play some exciting baseb all like we were doing up until 83, 84 games into the season last year. Hopefully we can continue that. You never know what can happen. If we can put pressure on the Nationals and the Mets and the Marlins, they could get a little scared and we might hop over them. Cools things could happen.

It’s got to be good for you feeling like you can start out strong and healthy again, and also knowing what you’re going to get as far as leadership from the likes of (A.J.) Pierzynski and Markakis, after playing with them last season, and the additions of a couple of guys like Aybar and Inciarte, who actually had more Defensive Runs Saved than Andrelton Simmons last year, as hard as that is to believe for those of us who watched Andrelton.

Freeman's home run clinched a wild-card berth for Braves in 2012. No one else in the picture remains with the team. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Freeman’s home run clinched a wild-card berth for Braves in 2012. No one else in the picture remains with the team. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Yeah, that’s very hard to believe. I saw that (statistic). But when we played the Diamondbacks he always seemed to take away a couple of hits, so it’s definitely nice to have him on our side. It’s going to be interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys we got in the trades, like the Swansons, the Blairs, all those guys that we got from the Angels too. It’s going to be the same thing this year (as last spring), we’re going to have to have name tags on our shirts. But it’s a lot more exciting crew that we’re going to have in spring training, to get to know these guys.

The Braves have so many good young arms now, a lot of people feel like if even half of them work out as projected, the team should be fine for a lot of years.

I know. Hopefully it happens soon rather than later. Hopefully these guys take some big steps this year and we can be like the Royals and Astros, with a lot of homegrown guys and get to the point of being able to make the playoffs every year. It’s going to be exciting.

So you and Julio (Teheran) are pretty much the last men standing in terms of the Braves from just a couple of years ago, the only ones left among those who got the multi-year extensions. Are you OK with all the trades and the rebuilding situation, now that the dust has settled from another busy offseason of Braves dealing?

I’m OK with the moves. I’m obviously going to miss Andrelton and Shelby a lot. Definitely going to be different not seeing Simba (Simmons) roaming short this coming year. But I hope he continues becoming a superstar with the Angels. The Diamondbacks got top-of-the-rotation stuff with Shelby (Miller). Not looking forward to having to face him. But me personally, this offseason’s moves made everything come full circle. We got a lot of top prospects back in the trades and I’m looking forward to seeing them in spring training. We have some young guys that could be making an impact with us this year, and in my opinion it’s an exciting time to be a Braves fan because I think we are going to be good soon – and for a lot of years to come.

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