ATLANTA — With Matt Adams slugging in the absence of Freddie Freeman, the Atlanta Braves are apparently mulling a major change on the infield. The team is considering trying Freeman at third base upon his return from a broken wrist in order to keep both he and Adams in the lineup.
It’s a move that Freeman himself initiated.
“A couple weeks ago I mentioned it and said I’d be willing to move over to third base to accommodate Matt,” said Freeman following an early afternoon fielding session at third base with Ron Washington on Wednesday. “I’m completely on board with it. I want to do it. We’ve got to keep Matt’s bat in the lineup and I’ll do anything to win.”
The initial reaction to this concept is varied, but Atlanta is apparently willing to put everything on the table in an attempt to keep Adams’ power bat in the lineup when Freeman returns. Just how far this experiment goes remains to be seen, but the fact the wheels are already in motion seems to speak volumes about how much better the club believes it can be by finding a way to put both sluggers in the lineup every day.
While it’s commonplace for players to switch positions over the course of a career, it’s the timing which sticks out in this case. It seems a curious path to take with an established first baseman of Freeman’s stature, especially given that he will be coming back from a significant injury in the middle of the season.
Manager Brian Snitker did not expect this turn of events, but you can count him among those impressed with the selflessness of Freeman’s offer.
“Says a lot about him, that your best player wants to do anything he can to help make this club better. I think it’s pretty cool,” said Snitker. “He’s way into this too. That’s the thing. He was talking about doing it and he even mentioned it before I think it really became serious. When Matt came over and what he’s doing, [Freeman] sees what that can do to this club, what it does to our lineup if he does this.”
Freeman is a two-time All-Star and was among the top three hitters in baseball prior to his injury on May 17. The initial timetable called for an 8-10 week recovery from the fractured left wrist he suffered when he was hit by a pitch from Toronto’s Aaron Loup. That would put him back on or around Aug. 1.
After having his wrist in a cast for four weeks, Freeman had it removed on schedule last week and began throwing on Monday. The first order of business will be recovering both strength and range of motion in the wrist. He is set for a CT scan on Friday and could be cleared to hit if that comes back clean. Freeman will be ramping up baseball activities over the coming weeks and was already taking grounders at third on Wednesday at SunTrust Park.
At the time of the injury, Freeman was slashing .341/.461/.748 and leading the National League with 14 home runs. General manager John Coppolella acted quickly to snag Adams from the Cardinals, where the five-year veteran had been relegated to pinch-hit duty. Adams did not cost the the Braves much in the prospect department and is under team control for 2018 as well.
It would be an understatement to say that Adams has far exceeded expectations in his time with the Braves. He’s slashing .296/.349/.635 with 10 home runs in 29 games. After slimming down some 30 pounds over the winter, it appears Adams may be in the midst of a career renaissance at age 28. At the very least, his hot streak has opened eyes in Atlanta.
Despite an improved physique, Adams did not take well to left field in a brief trial with St. Louis. Granted, he was not given much time to get acclimated with the new position, which he only started playing toward the end of spring training. The Braves could revisit the idea, but with corner outfielders Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis already entrenched it presents its own set of problems.
While both Freeman and Adams are better suited playing first base, Adams’ limited versatility led the Braves to do some serious outside-the-box thinking with their franchise player. Freeman appears to have been the impetus for this possible change.
“I’m going to travel with the team to San Diego and Oakland to work with Wash every single day,” said Freeman. “Everybody knows me, so do the rehab people. They’re going to try to force me to go slow, but I’ve been getting cleared of things the last few days that weren’t supposed to be cleared for a couple weeks. So, I’m pretty much ahead of schedule right now. I feel good. My bone doesn’t hurt at all, so it’s just getting the okay from the doctor on Friday.”
If things go well, Freeman is confident that his timetable could be sped up and include a return well ahead of schedule.
“I’m going to push the envelope like I always do,” joked Freeman. “With the All-Star break in a couple of weeks, everybody is talking about the first game, July 14, being my first game back, but I’m going to everything I can to get back for that Washington series (July 7-9).”
It’s worth noting a potential move across the diamond for Freeman would be an unorthodox position switch. Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera did so in 2012, but he had previous experience at the hot corner during the early part of his career. Chipper Jones moved to third base upon reaching the big leagues full time with Atlanta in 1995, but his shortstop background made it a much more natural conversion. Jones moved to left field in 2002, but that was viewed as something done out of necessity. He willingly swapped positions to allow the club to install Vinny Castilla at third base. However, that was a move that proved challenging and ultimately led Jones back to third base midway through 2004.
Jones has already voiced his support of Freeman’s willingness to give third base a try:
Freeman’s desire to put the team first and try a new position is certainly refreshing. He and Jones have already discussed the challenges ahead when it comes to learning the ins and outs of a new position.
“He just told me it’s going to be tough to do, ” Freeman said of his talk with Jones about moving to third. “I understand that. I haven’t played there in 10 years, but when you want to win you’ll do anything to win. Obviously Chipper was that kind of guy too. I’ve never put myself first. This is another thing for me. I want to win and get back to the playoffs. It’s been since 2013, so if me moving to third base to keep a bat like Matt Adams in the lineup is the best choice then I’m going to do it.”
Atlanta will have to monitor Freeman’s progress as it debates the merits of this potential switch. Freeman played some third base in his high school career and appeared in five games there with the GCL Braves in 2007, committing three errors in 14 chances. While those stats mean next to nothing at this point, it’s fair to question the likelihood of a smooth transition to third base after a decade-long break from the position.
That fact and the questions that come with it are not lost on Freeman.
“I think if I can do the little things correctly then everything else will fall in,” said Freeman of the value of the extra work he’ll put in with Washington over the next few week. “I’m obviously not going to go out there and make the spectacular plays. I don’t expect that. Maybe I’ll surprise some people, but I just want to be comfortable and confident over there going into the first game… I feel confident in myself that I can be able to handle it.”
Whether or not he should be handling the transition at this time is an interesting question, given that he is attempting to return from a significant injury in the middle of the season. It’s apparent that Freeman believes this is the best course of action for the team.
“My mindset is coming back as a third baseman,” said Freeman. “First base mitt is getting tucked away in the back of my locker. I’ve got an infielder’s glove and getting more sent to me. My mind is 100 percent on third base.”
Adams has been a tremendous boost to a Braves lineup that was in need of all the help it could get when Freeman went down. That one month of production appears to have warranted moving the franchise cornerstone from one corner to the other, though there is still ample time for the team to decide the best course of action.
For now, the Braves will wait and watch as Freeman goes through the process of becoming perhaps the most unlikely third baseman in franchise history.