Freeman proving himself worthy of everyday center field job

April 20th, 2024

CLEVELAND -- The Guardians wanted more production out of center field in 2024 and that’s exactly what is trying to give them.

The second inning was Freeman’s in the Guardians’ 10-2 victory over the A’s on Friday night at Progressive Field. In the top half of the frame he made a tumbling, over-the-shoulder snag to rob Lawrence Butler of extra bases.

When Freeman went to the plate in the bottom half, he got the Guardians on the board with a two-run homer to the opposite field to help lift his team to its 14th victory -- just the third time since 1995 that Cleveland has won at least 14 of the first 20 games of a season (also in ‘95 and ‘99).

The Guardians are already getting as much power from center field through 20 games as they did in all of 2023. Freeman’s shot on Friday marked his third of the season, already matching the total of home runs Cleveland received from center fielders in ‘23.

Freeman isn’t a power hitter, and he’d joke that his Statcast-projected 331-foot shot on Friday that would only be a homer at Progressive Field proves that. He’s a contact guy who has the potential to constantly find his way on base, but he can also take one out when he squares up a pitch.

It’s everything this team has been hoping for out of that position. Offensively, it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing for Freeman so far this year. He’s hitting just .214 so far, but he still has a .703 OPS with three homers and 10 RBIs -- the fourth most on the squad behind José Ramírez, Josh Naylor and Andrés Giménez.

The key for Freeman is consistent playing time. Freeman didn’t see that in ‘23, battling for innings at shortstop, third base or second base behind the regular starters.

He said in Spring Training that he knew he could be the hitter experts projected he’d be when he was at or near the top of the Guardians’ prospects list. The problem boiled down to finding a place for him on the diamond to get those everyday reps. That’s when the idea to move him to the outfield was born.

One of the biggest reasons the Guardians were slow to move on from Myles Straw (aside from his hefty contract) despite his offensive struggles the last two years was his elite defense in center field.

The risk of losing that was big for Cleveland, asking a middle infielder to move to center for the first time in his playing career. So far, he’s made a seamless transition and that was further demonstrated against the A’s.

Off the bat, Butler’s ball looked like it was going to be a one-hop double off the wall over Freeman’s head. But after turning to his left with his back toward the infield, Freeman looked up and realized he may be able to reach the ball if he leaped. He went for it and as he tumbled to the ground, he came up with the ball.

“I kind of turned the wrong way at first and then just kind of twisted around and kind of saw the ball beat me a little bit, so I just gave it a jump at the end,” Freeman said.

“They were working on that exact thing the other day on the field,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said. “Again, just a testament to Free’s hard work and [outfield coach] JT [Maguire] pushing these guys to work on the things that they’re going to be doing in the game.”

Freeman has proven to this coaching staff that he’s ridiculously coachable and is textbook in almost every move he makes.

He showed that in the eighth inning when the Guardians already had a healthy lead, but with two outs, he hustled from first base on an easy fly ball to left field. When it was dropped, Freeman strolled across the plate.

“For him to score on that, that’s outstanding,” Vogt said. “I mean, it’s just a testament to these guys and the way they are, for sure.”

Whether Freeman’s consistency offensively will pick up is unknown. But in the small sample sizes he’s had so far, he’s given his team every reason to believe that he can continue to help give this outfield offense a boost it’s been searching for.

“I think we’ve always known that he’s a great player,” Guardians starter Triston McKenzie said, “but to be able to watch him transition and to have the success that he has, especially the fact that he does it like it’s nothing, is great to see.”