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Reliever Freeman taking nothing for granted

Left-hander focuses on reducing walks, hopes new approach can extend career
MLB.com @mlbbowman

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Braves left-handed reliever Sam Freeman experienced the thrill of being a late-round Draft choice who beat the odds by making it to the Majors. He has also had his confidence tested over the past few years, when he seemingly was deemed expendable by both the Cardinals and Rangers.

Having learned to take nothing for granted, Freeman has not allowed himself to make any assumptions as he comes off a season that resuscitated his career. But thanks to the tough love he took to heart last year, he finds himself in position to be on an Opening Day roster for the first time.

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Braves left-handed reliever Sam Freeman experienced the thrill of being a late-round Draft choice who beat the odds by making it to the Majors. He has also had his confidence tested over the past few years, when he seemingly was deemed expendable by both the Cardinals and Rangers.

Having learned to take nothing for granted, Freeman has not allowed himself to make any assumptions as he comes off a season that resuscitated his career. But thanks to the tough love he took to heart last year, he finds himself in position to be on an Opening Day roster for the first time.

View Full Game Coverage

"Nothing has changed for me," Freeman said. "I've learned my lessons, man."

While being a part of four organizations within the past five seasons, Freeman has had his will tested on numerous occasions. His confidence was admittedly shot as he was sent out of Spring Training early last year, and began the season with Triple-A Gwinnett. He wondered whether he'd ever see the Majors again, but retirement seemed out of the question because he has long repeatedly told himself, "Baseball is the only thing I'm cut out to do."

As Freeman has battled control issues throughout his professional career, he has repeatedly heard coaches and instructors stress the importance of throwing first-pitch strikes and getting ahead in the count. 

But his approach changed -- and his career may have been altered early last season -- when Braves Minor League pitching coordinator Dom Chiti (now Atlanta's director of player development) delivered some tough love. He told Freeman to be more aggressive, or prepare to find a different occupation within the next two years.

"I was like [dang], dude," Freeman said. "At that stage of your career, you can go one of two ways. I was like, 'I'm not done'. I was 29 at the time. So, I was like, 'OK, you've already been as low as you can go'. Outrighted twice. Essentially fired twice already. So, sell out or commit to it, and let's go. From that point on, any time I started slipping, it was like, 'Keep that adjustment going and stick with it.'"

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Heeding Chiti's message to treat every pitch like he had a 0-2 count, Freeman didn't necessarily become a pinpoint artist. But as he issued 4.1 walks per nine innings while registering a 2.55 ERA over 60 innings (58 appearances), he produced his best walk rate in any of his big league seasons that consisted of at least 20 innings.

Freeman began the 2017 season wondering if he might ever again find a lasting spot in the Majors. He exited it with the eighth-best ERA among left-handed relievers who made at least 50 appearances last year.

"I'd say it was the most satisfying [season of my career], just in terms of coming back from the dead, so to speak," Freeman said. "It's like you've been written off, and I've proven I can do well at this level."

Drafted by the Cardinals in the 32nd round of the 2008 MLB Draft, Freeman underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, and made his big league debut on June 1, 2012, the same night St. Louis was no-hit by the Mets' Johan Santana. Freeman seemed to establish himself as he posted a 2.61 ERA over 44 appearances in 2014, but his control issues led the Cardinals to leave him off that season's National League Championship Series roster, and then trade him to the Rangers the following spring, when he was out of options and behind fellow lefties Kevin Siegrist and Randy Choate on St. Louis' bullpen depth chart.

Like Siegrist's emergence in 2013, Jake Diekman's arrival to the Rangers' bullpen during the latter portion of the 2014 season once again made Freeman expendable. He posted a 3.05 ERA in 54 appearances for Texas, and then was traded to the Brewers for cash considerations before the 2016 season.

"It was a tough pill to swallow, but looking in the mirror, it's like if you would have pitched the way they expected, and had done what you're capable of doing, that wouldn't be the case," Freeman said. "So, I had to get over the whole woe-is-me type of thing."

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.

Atlanta Braves, Sam Freeman