ATLANTA — Freddie Freeman’s offensive onslaught is now on hold.
The Atlanta Braves’ superstar first baseman sat in the interview room at SunTrust Park on Thursday afternoon wearing a green cast — his mom’s favorite color — after suffering a non-displaced left wrist fracture after being hit by a pitch on Wednesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays. Freeman is expected to miss approximately 10 weeks, a projected recovery timeline sidelining him until late July or early August.
“Obviously this is quite disappointing,” Freeman said. ” … It’s obviously a tough blow but I’m going to do every thing I can to get back as soon as I can.”
Freeman suffered the injury on a high-and-tight fastball running 94 miles per hour from Blue Jays left-hander Aaron Loup that ricocheted off the heel of his left hand, letting out an audible scream on contact and slowly walking out of the batter’s box toward the Braves dugout. He did not even attempt to grip the bat in the aftermath. As Braves manager Brian Snitker said of his star’s immediate exit, “He couldn’t swing the bat.” Freeman quietly set his batting helmet down and walked into the tunnel with trainer Jim Lovell.
Freeman said he had an idea of the severity when he couldn’t squeeze Lovell’s hand when prompted.
X-rays were initially inconclusive, though looming concerns were palpable from the beginning. On Thursday, MRI and CT scans confirmed Freeman had suffered the second significant wrist injury of his young career.
“I kind of knew after my whole hand started to ache and I couldn’t do any squeezing of the hand. I kind of had a feeling, but I was hoping for good news and that didn’t come.”
Freeman broke his bone in seven places, but said orthopedic hand surgeon Dr. Gary Lourie told him of the eight bones in the wrist, he had broken the “best possible one.” There is a ligament that helps it heal together, hence the injury will not requiring surgery.
He will wear a cast for four weeks and it will be removed every week for X-rays. Freeman will undergo another CT scan in two weeks and is hopeful that after four weeks he can lose the cast and begin the process of regaining strength in the wrist.
“It’s not the news I wanted when I got all the scans and saw Dr. Lourie,” said Freeman, who was placed on the 10-day disabled list. “Right now I’ve just got to sit, let it heal and we’ll take it from there.”
Third base prospect Rio Ruiz, 23, took his spot on the active roster.
And just like that, one of the sport’s top players exits stage right for, at best, two-plus months. But as much as this is a blow to his MVP-level start, Freeman said he was more disappointed in the setback after the Braves had won five of their last six games, including three straight against Toronto.
“The more disappointing fact is that we started playing good baseball as a team,” Freeman said. “I’ve never played this game for myself. I just come in here every day and play and try and help this team win and get back to the playoffs, because it’s been four years. When you win seven of the last nine games and put together the last five, six games that we did, this is a more devastating blow to me. I couldn’t care less about personal statistics at this point.”
There are no contingency plans for losing superstars in their primes.
Atlanta entered the 2017 season with one irreplaceable asset, a player that no internal spare part could replicate. The Braves were equipped to handle the loss of pitchers, catchers, other infielders and, to a lesser extent, outfielders without the threat of a significant decline from preseason expectations. Freeman, on the other hand, stood alone. The 27-year-old first baseman left Wednesday’s game as baseball’s most productive hitter since the 2016 trade deadline. Over the past calendar year, only Mike Trout, the sport’s undisputed king for six years running, has posted better offensive numbers.
Thirty-seven games does not write an MVP resume in ink, but the best start of Freeman’s career — coupled with his ascendant reputation around the league — positioned him for the first legitimate run of his career. The two-time All-Star is hitting .341/.461/.748 with 14 home runs and 2.6 wins above replacement this season — a rate that more than doubled the league average and buoyed the hopes of a rebuilding franchise currently sitting in second place in the National League East.
Depending on the accuracy of Freeman’s recovery timeline, all of that could be thrown out the window.
Since the start of the 2014 season, Freeman has missed 47 total games. The Braves have averaged just 3.1 runs per game with a 20-27 overall record in his absence. He will be sorely missed.
Atlanta’s farm system is structured around Freeman’s availability. There are no top prospects pushing for MLB playing time. Not a single first baseman landed on the organization’s top prospect lists this past offseason. The team’s most productive minor-leaguers at first base — considering the likes of Austin Riley, Brett Cumberland or Braxton Davidson have yet to make the potential position change — are lower-ceiling players stationed at Double-A or lower. Four players have played first base for Triple-A Gwinnett this season, including recently released Ryan Howard, and each hit 25 percent below the International League average or worse.
(The wrist injury doubles down on how much versatile free-agent signing Sean Rodriguez is missed this season in Atlanta. The veteran utility option, who will more than likely miss the entire 2017 season after suffering multiple injuries in an offseason car accident, is better than any option the organization is likely to find in its system or on the open market.)
“Sean Rodriguez is a guy we did sign in the winter realizing he was a guy that could pick up for Freddie,” president of baseball operations John Hart said. ” … He’s done, and if you look at, internally, how we set it up in the winter, that’s one that definitely affects us.”
The Braves have some internal options in Ruiz, Nick Markakis (six career starts at first base), Jace Peterson, who got the start at Freeman’s spot Thursday, (presently injured) Adonis Garcia or Johan Camargo. Ruiz and Camargo were getting pregame work with infield coach Ron Washington ahead of Thursday’s game. The organization also immediately added another option in free agent James Loney, per a report from Jon Heyman.
The 33-year-old Loney hit .265/.307/.397 with the Mets last season and participated in spring training with the Rangers before playing in the Tigers’ minor league system. He had been released by both franchises.
The 11-year veteran had two defensive runs saved in 784 innings for New York at first last season, but is six years removed from his best defensive season in 2011 when he had 11 DRS for the Dodgers. After signing a minor-league deal, it is expected that he’ll spend time with Triple-A Gwinnett before potentially joining the Braves.
Part of the problem facing the Braves is one that plagued them during the winter. Freeman’s consistent durability — he’s played in fewer than 147 games just once since 2010 — limited the caliber of player the Braves could attract as his backup or currently as a stop-gap until his return.
“It’s hard for us when … six-year free agent first basemen don’t want to sign here because Freddie plays 160 games a year,” said general manager John Coppolella.
The fact that Freeman returns to the disabled list with another wrist injury only adds to the frustration. Freeman missed 44 games and took two trips to the disabled list during the summer of 2015 with right wrist complications. Wrist injuries, which can affect grip strength, tend to linger. Freeman underwent multiple cortisone injections in his wrist and hand in 2015 and the subsequent offseason, even entering Atlanta’s 2016 spring training on a limited hitting regimen.
How Freeman’s wrist responds to treatment this time around remains to be seen. Until then, one of baseball’s brightest stars will be sidelined for the foreseeable future.
“We can’t find anybody that’s going to do what Freddie did,” Coppolella said. “He was arguably the best player in the whole league.”