Fall League a key component of Freeman's evolution
Braves slugger had two stints in AFL, first of which spent with teammate Kimbrel
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Freddie Freeman had the unique opportunity to play two seasons in the Arizona Fall League. The first he was simply taking advantage of a chance to further his development while competing against baseball's other top prospects. His second stint, which was brief, came after he had already made his Major League debut.
Freeman played 20 September games with Atlanta in 2010 before getting sent back to the AFL to stay sharp in the event that he would need to be added to a postseason roster that included two veteran first basemen -- Derrek Lee and Troy Glaus -- who were dealing with nagging injuries.
"There was an extra motivation to stay ready," Freeman said. "I think a lot of people go through [the AFL] just for that reason."
Freeman's second stint in the AFL proved to be short, as he suffered a mild left thumb strain when he slid into third base to complete a triple in just his fifth game.
"I was just going so fast," the always-witty and speed-challenged Freeman said while reminiscing about this trip that ended his second AFL experience. While his time in Arizona was short in 2010, Freeman still enjoyed the opportunity to spend a few weeks for a Peoria Devil Dogs team that was managed by former Yankees first baseman and current Dodgers manager Don Mattingly.
"You get to see different guys from different organizations that are the top guys," Freeman said. "I thought it was pretty cool getting to play for Don Mattingly, given he was a first baseman who played for [the Yankees] for all of those years. You always savor the chance to be introduced to different people and different places you have not seen before."
When Freeman made his AFL debut with the Peoria Saguaros in 2009, he had the opportunity to share the experience with current Braves teammates Jason Heyward, Mike Minor and Craig Kimbrel. A leg injury limited Heyward to just five games.
But Freeman, Kimbrel and Minor had a chance to spend an entire month testing their skills and benefiting from the chance to be surrounded by a number of guys they are currently competing against at the big league level. Their teammates included Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso, Reds shortstop Zack Cozart and Reds pitcher Mike Leake.
"You go into it with a closed mind, because you've just played a whole season and you're thinking, 'OK I've got to go play more,'" Freeman said. "But when you get there and get to be around the guys, I think it's good. I think the best experiences are off the field. You get to meet guys from around the league, and then when you see them in the big leagues, you're friends with them."
As Kimbrel progressed through that season with Peoria, he lived up to the billing of a hard-throwing prospect with command issues. Just 21 at the time, Kimbrel posted a 10.80 ERA and recorded 18 strikeouts while issuing 16 walks in 10 innings.
While he might not have produced statistics that indicated he would become the game's most dominant closer over the course of the next few years that followed, Kimbrel viewed the experience as beneficial because it tested him against top competition and allowed him to experience the continuity that didn't exist as he spent the 2009 regular season playing at every Minor League level from Class A to Triple-A.
"I don't know if it helped me, because I started off well and then I [stunk] after that," Kimbrel said. "But just being around that caliber of players for that amount of time helped."
When Freeman began playing the 2009 AFL season, he was a month removed from his 20th birthday and still in the process of developing the skills that earned him a Braves franchise record eight-year, $135 million contract in January. He hit .267 with one home run and a .727 OPS in the 12 games he played for Peoria.
"It's almost like Spring Training out there," Freeman said. "All the pitchers are tired, so they're not up to their normal selves. There are a lot more fastballs. So it's kind of like, 'Here you go.' If you hit any ball good, it's flying out of there in Arizona. I think guys either stand out or they just go through the motions because they have just played a whole season. A lot of guys are already sore or tired. A lot of the young guys aren't even ready for that. But it prepares you to play a longer season and play against the guys other organizations consider to be their best prospects."