On May 17, a fastball from Toronto’s Aaron Loup shattered Freeman’s left wrist. For a temporary replacement at first base, the Braves acquired Matt Adams in a trade with St. Louis. As Freeman recovered, Adams became an important part of their lineup. Freeman offered to play third base when he returned.
Freeman is the Braves’ cornerstone, with an eight-year, $135 million contract. He had played no position but first base since 2007, when he logged five games at third as a 17-year-old prospect in the Gulf Coast League. His request startled the Braves, but Freeman — who is 6 feet 5 and 222 pounds — insisted that he wanted to try.
“Freddie is one of the best team leaders and one of the most selfless players I’ve ever met,” General Manager John Coppolella said. “All this guy wants to do is win. He’s been an oak throughout this rebuild. The first hint he even had of winning, he was willing to put himself in harm’s way and move across the diamond to help make the Braves better.”
Freeman held his own at third base for the Braves, before a series of roster moves sent him back to first base this month. Adams headed to left field to replace the injured Matt Kemp, and when the Braves promoted Ozzie Albies to play second base, the veteran Brandon Phillips shifted from there to third. The final line on Freeman at third base: 16 games, just one error.
“When you see someone do that, you look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself you want to be that kind of player, too,” center fielder Ender Inciarte said. “He’s not selfish at all. We appreciate it, what he tried to accomplish. He actually played well at third base, but he’s always been a first baseman, he’s an M.V.P. type of player, and you don’t want to mess with him. You just want to leave him wherever he can be comfortable.”
The wrist injury cost Freeman nearly seven weeks, and although he said he may have returned too soon — the wrist is still sore — he is having his best season, with a 1.052 on-base plus slugging percentage through Thursday. His career O.P.S. of .871 ranked 11th among active players, and everyone ahead of him has won a Most Valuable Player Award or been a runner-up.
Freeman’s highest finish in M.V.P. voting was fifth, in 2013, the last year the Braves reached the playoffs. The next February, he signed a contract through 2021, without knowing what was ahead for the team: a major roster overhaul and a new stadium project in suburban Cobb County.
The Braves assured Freeman he would not be dealt as they shipped off veterans like Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis and Shelby Miller to try to stock their farm system. They have done that — “For us, we’re the top-ranked system and it’s not even close,” Coppolella said — but they tied for the fewest wins (63) in the National League last season and finished last in their division for the first time since 1990.
This season, top prospects like Albies and pitchers Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims and Max Fried have gotten their first taste of the majors. The Braves, who were 51-62 through Friday’s games, are not threatening for a playoff spot, but they are improving.
“It’s nice to see things starting to form into a team and not just form a minor league system,” Freeman said. “It’s been a tough two years; I don’t think anybody’s gonna sugarcoat that around here. We had a team where most teams said, ‘Oh, good, we’re playing the Braves.’ But I don’t think most teams say that anymore. Last year, we’d be 30 games under .500 at this point. It’s been so much better.”
Freeman keeps a shelf in his locker filled with Braves bobbleheads, three rows deep, as if to highlight his commitment to the cause. He wears a cap bearing a style of “A” different from the one that symbolized the team he rooted for in Anaheim, but he yearns to be remembered the same way in Atlanta.
“That’s what you play this for,” he said. “If you’re not playing to win, then what’s the point? I see no other way of playing this game other than trying to win the World Series. Hopefully, we’re close.”
Versatile and Productive
For most of their games this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers have started Chris Taylor in left or center field. This would have seemed unlikely in early April, for a few obvious reasons: Taylor hit just .207 last year after a trade from Seattle in June; he did not make the Dodgers’ opening day roster; and he had never played the outfield in professional baseball.
“This is the first year,” Taylor said recently. “Just four innings in college.”
The Dodgers are on pace to shatter their franchise record of 105 victories, and Taylor embodies their approach. He did not make much of an impression in parts of three seasons with the Mariners, hitting .240 with no homers in 86 games, but a few other traits attracted the Dodgers, who crave versatile players for their deep roster.
“He was a college player out of Virginia — an intelligent, athletic baseball player, high aptitude, can do a lot of things on the field, a shortstop by trade,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “When we acquired him, he was in the middle of the infield, so this year — for our roster to make sense for him and for us — he had to play some outfield. For him to take that on so seamlessly says a lot about him as a baseball player.”
Taylor played 10 games this April at Class AAA Oklahoma City, starting at second, short, third and center, before the Dodgers promoted him. He quickly showed the benefits of the swing changes he made last winter with Robert Van Scoyoc, a Dodgers hitting consultant.
“I really worked on my hands,” Taylor explained. “I’m a little taller, added a leg kick, and I think the biggest difference has been that my hands aren’t going from a standstill. I added a little bat waggle and then kind of a knob-to-knee move. I just added a little more bat speed, so some of those balls that I’m getting that used to be flyouts are carrying over the fence now, or in the gaps.”
Taylor has been one of the National League’s leading hitters since the All-Star break, and through Friday he was batting .307 with 16 homers and 55 runs batted in this season. The deal that made him a Dodger has not worked out so well for the Mariners, who never used Zach Lee, the pitcher they acquired in the trade. Lee, a former top prospect who had pitched just once for the Dodgers, went 0-9 for a Mariners minor league team and was claimed off waivers by San Diego in December.
Baylor’s Big October Moments
Don Baylor, who died of multiple myeloma at age 68 on Aug. 7, played 19 seasons and finished his career by appearing in three World Series for three different teams. Baylor helped the 1986 Boston Red Sox, the 1987 Minnesota Twins and the 1988 Oakland Athletics to pennants, and hit two of the most overlooked but essential home runs of that era.
Dave Henderson was not the only Boston hitter with a two-run homer in the ninth inning in Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series. Before Henderson gave the Red Sox the lead — by connecting off the Angels’ Donnie Moore with one strike to spare — Baylor also went to the plate as the potential series-ending out.
With the Red Sox down by three games to one, Baylor faced Mike Witt with one out and a runner on first in the ninth inning. The Red Sox trailed, 5-2, and a double play would have ended the series. Instead, Baylor ripped a homer, setting up Henderson’s heroics three batters later. The Red Sox prevailed in extra innings, returned to Boston and advanced to the World Series, which they lost to the Mets.
Baylor’s last home run for the Red Sox came the next August, a grand slam at Fenway Park off Steve Carlton, the future Hall of Famer nearing the end of his career with Minnesota. The Twins must have liked what they saw, because they soon traded for Baylor to help down the stretch.
Baylor’s next home run was the biggest of Minnesota’s season. With the Twins trailing, 5-3, and facing elimination against St. Louis in Game 6 of the World Series, Baylor came to bat in the fifth inning. Facing the Cardinals’ ace, John Tudor, Baylor slammed a game-tying homer into the left-field seats at the Metrodome. A Steve Lombardozzi single soon gave the Twins the lead.
Kent Hrbek’s grand slam the next inning is the most indelible snapshot of that World Series, a triumphant moment for Hrbek, a lifelong Minnesotan who played only for the Twins. Baylor hit no other homers for the franchise, but his one big blast turned the game, and the next night the Twins won their first championship.