Can Freddie Freeman make leap at first base?

Spring training is coming, with pitchers and catches to report on Feb. 11, and there is no shortage of burning questions facing the Braves before they descend upon Disney World.

We open up our series of position primers at first base, where Atlanta has a budding star on its hands in Freddie Freeman. He will be looking to truly establish himself as one of the game’s top first basemen after an up and down 2012. 

So without further ado …

1. Can Freddie Freeman make the leap at the plate?

First the positives — Freeman’s power numbers increased in his second full season in the majors with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs after totaling 21 and 76, respectively, as a rookie. His OPS also rose ever so slightly from .795 to .796. 

But his average dipped, which was largely due to the eye injury he suffered May 5 at Coors Field. Freeman went from .302 – 20 points above his rookie average – to .257 by the end of the month, and while he made up some ground thanks to a midsummer’s hot streak, hitting at a .386 clip, by the end of the season he had fallen back to .259.

It’s the Reds’ Joey Votto that Freeman is most compared to and it was in Votto’s third full season that he joined the game’s elite at the position, winning the NL MVP.

In Votto’s first two full seasons he had 49 HRs with 168 RBIs and a 140 OPS+, numbers that are fairly in line with Freeman’s – 44 HRs, 170 RBIs and a 114 OPS+ – over that same sample size.

But where Votto made his biggest stride, and where Freeman needs to make his if he’s going to continue a similar career trajectory, is plate discipline.

Freeman struck out 129 times in 147 games last year, drawing just 64 walks. And there’s no attributing those numbers primarily to the vision problem: He fanned 142 times with 53 walks in 157 games as a rookie.

Producing an MVP season a la Votto isn’t the expectation in his third full season, but Chipper Jones’ departure has created a hole at the No. 3 spot in the order, one that the Braves sorely need Freeman to fill and fill with more consistent production.

2. What do we make of Freeman’s defensive statistics?

The numbers, at least the ones that most baseball heads agree matter when grading a player’s defensive worth, aren’t kind to Freeman.

While the Braves led the majors with a 53.1 UZR – ultimate zone rating – last season, that came in spite of Freeman, whose own UZR was a -4.0, which was 17th among all first basemen.

Then there’s his 74.5 percent RZR, which measures the success rate of outs made on balls hit into a fielder’s zone. That was also 17th at the position.

But on the flip side, his DRS (defensive runs saved) was a respectable +3, putting him eighth in MLB and it’s at a +1 for his career, which is above average for the position. Plus, those UZR and RZR numbers are a step above what he posted as rookie at -12.6 and -2, respectively. 

Freeman is not on pace for a Gold Glove, at least not yet, but he’s showing progress defensively. 

As unsavory as some of his numbers are, it’s all that can be asked given the potential for what he can do for the Braves at the plate.

3. Who will back him up?

The Braves let Eric Hinske walk and Lyle Overbay, who was added in the summer as a September bench piece, is a free agent. 

Ernesto Mejia is the most likely option after being added to the 40-man roster and while he’s big (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) and has shown power, hitting 24 homers last year for Triple-A Gwinnett, he’s also spent eight years in the minors with zero major-league experience.

Then there’s Juan Francisco, who with Martin Prado the likely successor to Jones at third base, could be a serviceable backup to Freeman as well. 

With an unsavory/unrealistic/expensive group of free agents remaining in Lance Berkman, Miguel Cairo, Jason Giambi, Aubrey Huff, Casey Kotchman, Adam LaRoche, Carlos Lee and Carlos Pena, this seems like a role Atlanta will be best served to fill internally.