Few teams groom young players for the majors as well—and as fearlessly—as Atlanta. In a pool of strong Rookie of the Year candidates, one stands out above the rest: first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose big bat might remind you of last year's spring phenom
There comes a time in most of our lives when we seek to assert our distinctiveness from even those closest to us, to individuate. For Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward, that time is now. Freeman and Heyward met at a high school All-American game in August 2006, and the two became close friends a year later, shortly after the Braves drafted them 64 slots apart. (Heyward was the 14th overall pick, Freeman the 78th.) They differed in many ways. Heyward—Georgian, a first child, African-American—was polished, described by teammates as a 40-year-old in a teenager's body. Freeman—a Southern California native, the youngest of three brothers, Caucasian—was loose, if no less disciplined when it counted. But they both had powerful lefthanded swings, and Freeman and Heyward bonded over much more than that as they marched together, in near lockstep, through Atlanta's minor league system.
They shared apartments and roomed together on the road. They ate together. If one didn't finish the other's sentences, it was only out of courtesy. ("If he starts with something, I kind of know where he's going with it," Freeman says, "but I'm not going to interrupt.") They spent so much time together that coaches and teammates called them Salt and Pepper, which qualifies as creative in a sport in which most nicknames are derived from the following formula: Take the first syllable of a player's last name, add a "y." When their professional careers diverged last year—Heyward made the Braves' Opening Day roster and was the starting rightfielder all season, while Freeman spent most of the season with Triple A Gwinnett—they lived together still, in Heyward's house in Cobb County, a short drive from both Turner Field and Gwinnett's ballpark.
The 6'5", 242-pound Freeman—he's Salt—is about to be reunited on the field with his 6'5", 240-pound shaker-mate. General manager Frank Wren says that among the Braves' decision-makers, "none of us has any doubt that he'll be our Opening Day first baseman." Though they will be teammates once more, Freeman and Heyward would not object if the theme of their inseparability became a thing of the past. During a photo shoot last Friday on a back field at the Braves' spring facility in Disney World, they balked at a photographer's request to put their arms around each other's shoulders, or at least to horse around a little. "We're close, but we're not that close," said Heyward.
February 28, 2011
"We're friends," Freeman added later, "but we're not that good friends." Neither one of them is inclined to recount tales of domestic high jinks (Heyward will allow that Freeman likes to sleep later and is the messier of the two), and they are not rooming together in Orlando and do not plan to during the season (although Freeman is considering a place a block from Heyward's). "We're grown men, you know?" Freeman says. "We're 21."
That 21 equals adulthood would no doubt come as news to the scores of Americans of that age who at this moment are contemplating which rum-soaked location might host the best spring break. But neither Freeman nor Heyward has any doubt that they have reached the age of maturity, and neither does their organization. "If you put a screen in front of them, and you couldn't tell who was on the other side, the way they talked to you, you'd think these guys are 27- or 28-year-old men," says Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. Assuming Freeman makes the Opening Day lineup, they will be the third- and fourth-youngest regular position players in the majors—only Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro and Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton are younger—and they will become the Braves' first pair of 21-or-under regulars. Those bits of trivia are of no concern to Wren. "When you're talented, I don't think anyone's going to ask for your birth certificate," he says. "The umpires don't card."
Heyward is a five-tool phenom who was regarded as the game's top prospect last spring. He more than lived up to his billing, reaching base in nearly 40% of his plate appearances, hitting 18 home runs and finishing second to Giants catcher Buster Posey in the National League Rookie of the Year voting despite badly spraining his left thumb in May. (Heyward says that his thumb is now pain free, if not fully flexible.) Freeman may not possess Heyward's once-a-decade talent, but he is an elite prospect who hit .319 with 18 home runs and 87 RBIs and was named the 2010 International League Rookie of the Year. He and Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown are likely to be the NL's only rookie regulars when the season begins.
Were Freeman a member of another organization, he might expect to spend April and May back in the minors, as many clubs like to delay the debuts of big-league-ready prospects to arrest the ticking of their service-time clocks and their eligibility for arbitration and free agency. Four of the past eight rookies of the year—Posey, the Marlins' Chris Coghlan, the Rays' Evan Longoria and the Brewers' Ryan Braun—began their lauded rookie seasons in the minors. That is not how the Braves operate. "If you're leaving a young guy in Triple A because of service issues, I don't think you're holding up your end of the bargain with your players and your manager," says Wren.
Since Fred McGriff departed after the 1997 season, 24 men have played at least a dozen games at first base for Atlanta, but the Braves' plan is for Freeman to thrust his cleat into that long-revolving door. Freeman and Heyward are expected to become the young cornerstones of an evolving franchise, one with a new manager (Gonzalez takes over for the retired Bobby Cox, who had been filling out the Braves' lineup cards since 1990) and a new, slugging second baseman (Dan Uggla, who was acquired in a November trade with the Marlins and then given a five-year, $62 million contract extension). And they are expected to help the Braves win a playoff series for the first time since 2001; the most recent fruitless postseason effort was in October, when Atlanta played four one-run games, three of them losses, in the NLDS against the Giants. But Freeman and Heyward won't be alone in that effort.
Old farts and young bucks," is how Peter Moylan, the Braves' sidewinding Aussie reliever, describes his club's roster. Moylan is one of the more colorful figures in the Atlanta clubhouse, literally and figuratively: He has sleeve tattoos covering both arms, and he views the game with a jocular perspective that he perhaps developed when he was 21 and a pro baseball washout, driving around the Australian state of Victoria as a pharmaceutical rep and throwing only on the weekends. (Moylan, now 32, was rediscovered by major league scouts while pitching for Australia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.) His characterization of this year's Braves is as accurate as it is expressive: No team in baseball is likely to be as polarized, agewise, as Atlanta.
A baseball player's peak years tend to come between the ages of 26 and 32, and players in that range make up the majority of the major leagues: According to the projected rosters at mlbdepthcharts.com, the 30 clubs average 14.5 players who will be in their primes on Opening Day. No fewer than 21 Twins fall into that range.
The Braves? They might start the season with only 10 peak players, assuming that bench candidates Diory Hernandez, 26, and Joe Mather, 28, make the club. That number ties them with the Yankees for the league's fewest, but there is a significant difference in the roles of the young players on each team. Aside from starters Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, the Yankees' 25-and-unders will most likely be marginal contributors. The Braves' will be Freeman and Heyward, three of their five starting pitchers (Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and rookie Mike Minor) and rookie closer Craig Kimbrel.
Not that the Braves are devoid of in-their-prime stars. They have a quartet of 26-to-32-year-olds who have been selected to a combined nine All-Star Games: catcher Brian McCann (27), centerfielder Nate McLouth (29), infielder Martin Prado (27) and Uggla (30), who has averaged 30.8 home runs in his five seasons in the majors. Still, the fact remains: The Braves' hopes in 2011 will largely rest upon players who are either rather old or rather young. If this is not Wren's ideal design, then it is the fruit of a philosophy his organization (which he joined in 1999, as the assistant G.M. to John Schuerholz) developed 20 years ago. The Braves' cadre of talented 25-and-unders is one outcome of its unwavering focus on scouting and development. Their refusal to behave like anything but the financially middle-class club they are means that they avoid locking themselves into long-term deals with peaking free agents. Instead, they prefer to address needs with slightly older players with shorter deals. The result of this approach, says Rangers G.M. Jon Daniels: "They can develop and win at the same time, which is the most challenging thing to do in the game."
"That's been the formula," says Gonzalez. "They keep injecting good young players into the mix of good, established veterans." Gonzalez was Cox's third base coach from 2003 through '06 and therefore was more familiar than any other managerial candidate with Atlanta's organizational philosophy. To the surprise of no one, he was hired shortly after Cox managed his last game, in the NLDS. This was no effort to shake up the status quo on a team that has gone 15 years without a World Series championship. In fact, the idea seems to have been to replace Cox with a 22-years-younger version of him. "A lot of my beliefs and a lot of the stuff I feel strongly about comes from him," says Gonzalez. "I think we're pretty close, personalitywise."
The Braves' veterans all seem to feel that way: Moylan, asked to describe how this spring training might be different, didn't mention his new manager until reminded of him. That group includes their longest-tenured player, the oldest and most accomplished of them all, and the one who led the lobbying for Gonzalez to succeed Cox. Chipper Jones, Wren says, is "the guy that transitions us from our last championship to our next one."
The left corner of his mouth still curls up when he speaks, in that old familiar way, but otherwise Jones finally looks his age. He will turn 39 on April 24, making him the senior Brave by more than a year. He's got six scarred-over holes in his left knee and three in his right. He is thickly built and stubbly now—15 seasons, an MVP award and a batting title removed from being that slim, smooth-faced rookie who played third base for the 1995 world champs and naturally assumed that there would be many more parades in his future.
That there have been none was one reason Jones decided over the winter not to retire, a move he had been considering before tearing his left ACL last August. That he truly believes there might be one this year was the other reason. And for that, Braves fans can, in part, thank the presence of Freeman and Heyward.
Now Jones sits in his corner locker in the Braves' Disney World clubhouse, his knee almost healed. A few lockers to his left, Freeman is holding up a new pair of spikes, just out of their shipping box, for the approval of Heyward across the room. "Whatever, they're still attached at the hip, man," Jones says of the idea that his youngest teammates are more independent now. "These guys want to get married and have kids, they'd better separate."
Just a joke, he makes clear. "There's nothing wrong with those two hanging out," he says. "I think they kind of have a friendly rivalry, such as what Andruw [Jones] and I had through our younger years. It's a good thing. A guy goes out and hits .300, hits 30 home runs and drives in 100 runs, the other guy wants to do the same thing."
You start to notice life cycles when you've played as long as Jones has. In some ways, though, Freeman's story is unique. His mother, Rosemary, died of melanoma in 2000, leaving her husband, Fred, to raise three boys of 16, 13 and 10. Freddie was the 10-year-old. In the melancholy time to follow, Fred, suddenly a single parent, worried about his sons' emotional well-being and their safety—particularly that of Freddie, who was too young to be left alone. So Fred, a partner in an accounting firm in Villa Park, Calif., would wait to take his lunch breaks until five to two, when his youngest son's school day was over. He would pick Freddie up, and the two would drive to Handy Park. For the next hour he would throw strike after strike to his son, who would meet the ball with a swing that grew prettier by the day, like those of his idols, Chili Davis and Garret Anderson. "First of all, he was safe, and I didn't have to worry about him for that hour," Fred recalls. "We didn't talk a lot. I just threw, and he'd hit, and then he'd go down the rightfield line, and I'd go down the leftfield line, and we'd throw all the balls into center and pick them up together. Day after day after day."
After batting practice Fred and his son would drive back to the accounting firm, where Freddie would do his homework in an empty office until it was time to go home for dinner. "He grew up very fast after his mom passed away," Fred says. "I couldn't be there to stand over him all the time, so he had to do some things on his own."
Even as Freddie skyrocketed up the California youth baseball circuit, and then as scouts started scribbling furiously during his at bats, Fred, standing further and further back, continued to throw to his son every afternoon. "Count the days we didn't," Fred says. "I'd like to take credit for his swing"—a smooth, mechanically enviable effort that is far more artful than Heyward's violent lash—"but I didn't do anything. I just threw to him."
Of course those sessions were about more than just throwing and hitting. Just last week, as Freeman prepared to leave Orange County for spring training, he and his dad went out to their old field. Fred threw and Freddie hit, and afterward Freddie picked up balls down the rightfield line and Fred those that had settled along the leftfield line, and they threw all the balls into center and then picked them up.
The Braves have no desire to change what Freeman has always done. "There's not a part of his game that I think he needs to focus on and improve," says Wren. "He has a very good swing and uses the whole field. I think that's going to help him at the next level. I think what we hope will develop is something that will happen naturally, not something he needs to work on—more power. We're not going to spend time trying to teach him how to hit with more power."
Controlled, natural cycles are what Wren seeks—not the sine curves of rebuilding and competing that some other organizations follow but a fluid process whereby young stars are constantly complementing and then replacing their aging predecessors. It's a formula that has helped the Braves to 18 winning seasons in the last 20 years. "The way our club is balanced, I think it sets us up for the future," Wren says. "Now and the future."
The plan is that Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward will be integral to both, together.
ACE IN THE MAKING
BOYS OF SPRING: 2011 ROOKIES TO WATCH
"There was never a question about the talent," says Rays G.M. Andrew Friedman of Hellickson, who was 3--0 with a 2.05 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings as a starter after Tampa Bay called him up last August. "What was most impressive when he came up was the poise. He showed from Day One he's ready." The Rays were conservative in handling their 23-year-old control artist, allowing him only four starts before relegating him to the bullpen in September and then leaving him off the postseason roster. (That light workload left the righthander eligible for the Rookie of the Year award this season.) Confident that Hellickson will thrive as Matt Garza's replacement in the rotation, the Rays are ready to unleash their Hellboy.
LHP, WHITE SOX
Because of his build (a rail-thin 6'5") and an intimidating repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out at 100 mph, Chicago's 2010 first-round draft pick looks like the second coming of Randy Johnson. But while the White Sox project Sale as a starter, the 21-year-old from Florida Gulf Coast University will spend this season in the bullpen, where he could end up as the departed Bobby Jenks's successor as closer. "We called him up [last August] in the middle of a race, and, pitching in high-leverage situations, he didn't flinch," says White Sox assistant G.M. Rick Hahn, who watched Sale strike out 32 in 23 1/3 innings down the stretch.
After a forgettable stint in the Dominican winter league—he went 2 for 29 for Escogido before heading home early because he "just played bad"—Brown spent the rest of his off-season bulking up (adding 10 pounds of muscle) and tweaking his swing (his new stroke is more compact). The prize prospect, a five-tool talent who hit .210 in 35 games with Philly last season, hopes the winter work helps him lock down the rightfield job vacated by free agent Jayson Werth. The Phillies, though, may start the season with Brown, 23, in a platoon. "He played in the minors for a short period of time," says manager Charlie Manuel. "He's still definitely learning how to play baseball."
CATCHER ON THE RISE
This winter the Angels felt they could afford to deal slugging catcher Mike Napoli to the Blue Jays (he was later flipped to the Rangers) in large part because of the emergence of the 23-year-old Conger. A switch-hitter with excellent gap-to-gap power, the team's first-round pick in 2006 is still raw: He logged his first full pro season only two years ago because of a rash of injuries early in his career. Conger, a .297 career hitter in the minors, will compete this spring with Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson for playing time, but the aging and expensive Angels are eager to get younger. "For a guy with not much playing experience," says manager Mike Scioscia, "he is really advanced in calling and running a game. We're confident that he's very close."
CY YOUNG SCION
RHP, BLUE JAYS
Toronto is suddenly loaded with talented young arms, none with more upside than the 23-year-old son of 1990 NL Cy Young winner Doug Drabek. The most prized of the prospects obtained in the trade that sent Roy Halladay to the Phillies in 2009, the 6'1" Texan spent last season at Double A—he had a 2.94 ERA and was the Eastern League pitcher of the year—before getting three starts as a September call-up. Drabek, who has a chance to win a rotation spot out of camp, has always had a devastating 12-to-6 curveball to complement a mid-90s fastball. The only thing holding him back now is the absence of an effective changeup, which he has devoted himself to improving this spring.
The Giants may have another Buster Posey, last year's NL Rookie of the Year. Belt, a fifth-round draft pick in 2009, is a 6'5", 210-pound, sweet-swinging lefty whom scouts liken to Will Clark. He was drafted in the 11th round by the Braves four years ago as a pitcher (he opted to go to Texas), but he has bloomed at the plate after revamping his stance and swing with the Giants. A slick fielder, he led the minor leagues in OPS (1.075) in 2010, and if he doesn't begin this year launching balls into McCovey Cove, he should force an early-season promotion and make an instant impact the way Posey did after his May call-up last year.