They got quality starts from Julio Teheran and Bud Norris, good work from a bullpen many have fretted over, great glovework from center fielder Ender Inciarte, and four hits including a homer from new cleanup hitter Adonis Garcia.
But perhaps the most encouraging development out of the Braves’ first two games, as it was from spring training, is the good health of Freddie Freeman. Or, put another way, the lack of anything newsworthy regarding his right wrist.
Freeman is the Braves’ best hitter, their only exceptional all-around hitter. With the additions of top-of-the-order guys Ender Inciarte and Erick Aybar and a full season of Garcia at third base, the Braves have a chance to be an improved offense over the past two seasons, when they scored a majors-low 1,146 runs, which was 89 runs fewer below the next-lowest total in that two-year span.
That chance doesn’t exist without Freeman, who missed 44 games last season for two stints on the disabled list. His troublesome right wrist/hand injuries lingered through December and kept him from taking any live batting practice until spring training began.
Then he took a few sessions of batting practice, hit a frozen-rope double in his first at-bat of the Grapefruit League opener, homered in his second game, and proceeded to hit four homers among his eight hits at spring training, along with 14 walks for a .423 OBP and .579 slugging percentage.
Braves veteran Kelly Johnson compared Freeman to a former teammate, now-retired Braves great Chipper Jones, who was known for his ability to flourish at the plate immediately after DL stints late in his career — sometimes without any minor-league rehab assignment whatsoever, which would be unheard of for most players.
“They’re guys who can hit rolling out of bed,” Johnson said. “They’re strong, and their bad speed is second to none. When they catch one, and when they get hot … they’re just never far off from feeling good. Even if they’re not getting hits, they’re not far off from being dangerous. And their hot streaks are second to none.”
Two days before spring training began, the Braves announced an ease-into-it plan for Freeman. They wanted to make sure not to push him and risk aggravating that wrist and having it linger into the season. But Freeman didn’t do much easing, and didn’t have any setbacks.
Then he homered Monday off Nationals ace Max Scherzer in the first inning on opening day, the first time he’d ever faced the three-time All-Star and former Cy Young Award winner.
It doesn’t take long for those who’ve been around baseball a while to recognize Freeman is special, and it has nothing to do with the franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract extension he signed in February 2014.
“He’s got lightning-quick hands, he’s got a little uppercut which, that’s just the way his swing is,” said Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who describes work with Freeman as light maintenance, since Seitzer doesn’t need to or want to adjust his pretty swing. “You just try and make little tweaks and adjustments, it’s not something that you go into too much depth with him, because he’s just not that type of guy.”
Seitzer himself is a former All-Star, American League Rookie of the Year runner-up, .295 career hitter in 12 seasons, and ex-teammate and protégé of legendary Royals hitter George Brett. I asked him if Freeman, an NL Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2011, two-time All-Star and .284/.366/.466 career hitter who averaged nearly 21 homers over the past five seasons, had the talent to be a truly elite hitter.
“No question,” Seitzer said. “I mean, I feel like he is now. He’s an excellent breaking-ball hitter, very quick on the fastball, he stays on the heater, recognizes off-speed really well, and he’s really good at hitting secondary pitches. The key for him is just making sure he stays healthy with that hand.”
During spring training I asked Dansby Swanson, the Braves’ top-rated prospect and the No. 1 overall pick in the June 2015 draft by the Diamondbacks, about Swanson’s improved performance, offensively and defensively, after a few weeks in his first major league camp. I asked him if it was from getting more comfortable.
“I think the word would be, just getting back in rhythm a little bit,” said Swanson, a former Vanderbilt star. “Baseball takes time. There’s some people, like Freddie — Freddie’s a freak. Hadn’t been able to hit as much with his wrist last season, comes in and first at-bat (at spring training) hits a double. It’s like, good gosh. That guy, he’s above and beyond.”
With Freeman in the lineup, opposing pitchers have a hitter to be seriously concerned about, a hitter who can do damage with one swing at any time. A hitter who, even in his injury-plagued 2015 season, hit .276 with 18 homers and an .841 OPS, and, oh, by the way, led the major leagues with a .376 average with runners in scoring position, ahead of Nolan Arenado (.373) and Miguel Cabrera (.365).
Without Freeman in the lineup? Without him the Braves just don’t have a good lineup. Or a hitter pitchers fear (though Garcia is showing he might become that). Besides Freeman, they don’t have another hitter who had more than 10 home runs last season, or another who hit more than one homer this past spring training for the Braves.
“He’s a huge piece,” Seitzer said. “Any time a team loses its best hitter, it’s a big shot. The biggest thing for me (is to keep him healthy, not overwork him). He does just the right amount of work to get his feel going, and then head out. It’s something this spring that we really focused on, quantity. Keeping the reps down, keeping him loose and getting him ready, and then go. He’s in a good place.”
That’s what the Braves want to hear. They need Freeman healthy for the whole season. They all know it.
“He’s our guy, the 3-4-hole guy you’re going to lean on,” Johnson said. “Honestly, he’s the one guy that, when he’s in there, it’s going to put everyone else in a spot that’s better for the team and better for each individual. That’s huge. When we lose him at any point, or he takes a day to rest or whatever, it’s tough. It’s a noticeable absence.”