Freeman inherits 3 spot from Chipper Jones

BY foxsports • May 15, 2012

Chipper Jones’ final season with the Braves isn’t near complete, but he’s already bequeathed something to one of his young teammates.

For years, Jones and Braves fans knew where he would be in the lineup. If he wasn’t hitting third, he wasn’t playing.

It was a given. A constant. A fact of life.

No. 10 belonged in the No. 3 spot, which generally goes to a team’s best all-around hitter, and that honor belonged to Jones for the better part of the past two decades. Bobby Cox installed Jones in the three hole as a rookie in 1995 and began building his lineup around him.

Aging and gimpy and facing his baseball mortality, Jones has relinquished his longtime hold on the coveted spot, passing it down to someone both he and the team feel is a worthy successor.

There were no trumpets or declarations.

Freddie Freeman quietly assumed the third spot this season, not that he cares where he hits in the lineup, as he said Monday. And Freeman is proving he belongs there.

He has been in the majors for one season and just about two months, and he’s already had a career’s worth of highlights.

• Last year, he became the first Braves rookie to reach 50 RBIs by July 18 since Hank Aaron in 1954.
• He finished second to teammate Craig Kimbrel in the NL Rookie of the Year race.
• He had 161 hits, setting the Atlanta Braves rookie record.
• He had a 20-game hitting streak.
• And he became the first Braves rookie to hit more than 20 home runs since Jones in 1995.

Now in his second season, Freeman is third in the NL with 28 RBIs -- to go with his team-leading six home runs and .277 average -- and he already has twice been named the National League’s player of the week.

Freeman went 0-for-3 in the Braves’ 3-1 loss to the Reds on Monday before leaving with blurriness in his right eye. He was to see the team eye doctor after the game.

“He’s been great,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He really has been great. (Hitting coach) Greg Walker thinks he’s the most talented young hitter he’s seen in a long, long, long time. He’s been terrific.”

Freeman rarely finds himself in long, deep slumps, strangely, because he doesn’t have a classic left-handed swing. It’s short, and choppy at times, and he’s already adept at punching the ball the other way.

Unlike a spray hitter, though, Freeman’s hits often are backed by the full force of his strength, which is steadily increasing as the 22-year-old adds muscle to his 6-foot-5 frame.

“Sunday, he was facing (Cardinals reliever Victor) Marte and he had a 3-2 count,” Gonzalez said. “Freddy battled and shortened up and ended up getting a double to score us a run with a really unorthodox and ugly swing. He just stuck his nose in there and got the job done.”

It was the second of two doubles for Freeman, who has cooled at the plate the past week after going through another one of those stretches where hits and homers come in bunches for him.

That’s already happened twice this season.

He had a week to remember by hitting .478 with 14 RBIs in mid-April and came back two weeks later by ripping up the Rockies’ staff on his way to batting .367 with three more homers and 10 RBIs the first week of May.

“The only the thing I have to work on is being consistent,” Freeman said. “My 0-fors were a little bit longer than I wanted (in 2011). There were some 0-for-13s and 0-for-14s. You’ve got to try to keep those to 0-for-7s and 0-for-8s. I’ve been able to do that this year and put the ball in play more often. That’s my big goal this year.”

The Braves hope Freeman’s presence also will help solve a longevity issue at first base that’s persisted for decades. Finding a first baseman hasn’t always been the team’s first priority.

No player has spent five consecutive seasons at first since Chris Chambliss arrived from New York and brought stability and professionalism to the position from 1980-84.

Players of varying degrees of ability have shuffled through the position since, with none lasting longer than Fred McGriff’s four and a half seasons in the mid-1990s.

In fact, Freeman is the first player with consecutive seasons at first for the Braves since Adam LaRoche from 2004-06.

The cast has included fan favorites like Bob Horner, David Justice, Sid Bream and Andres Galarraga, and more recent one-and-dones like Robert Fick, Casey Kotchman and Troy Glaus.

“I prepare myself to play hard every day and go out there and do my best,” Freeman said. “I don’t think about my age or how long I’ve been here. I’m here competing. They believe in me to be here and they put me in the three hole. I’m not going to let them down. I’m going to go out there and play hard, and hopefully that’s good enough.”

So the Braves aim to keep Freeman around for a while. He has the endorsement of Gonzalez and all of his teammates, especially the guy he’s replacing in the lineup.

“As Chipper Jones says, we have a No. 3 hitter for a long time,” Gonzalez said.