A first for Freeman: A pain-free offseason

January 25th, 2020

ATLANTA -- arrived at Chop Fest on Saturday feeling thankful that he no longer has to rely on the heavy doses of pain medication that allowed him to gut his way through last year’s National League Division Series and all of the offseasons in which he was burdened by discomfort in his right elbow.

“It’s the first time in nine years I haven’t had any pain in the offseason,” Freeman said. “Usually, I’m taking about four extra-strength Tylenol right now when I’m hitting. I used to think it was because I was getting used to hitting again. But come to find out, there was a little more to it.”

Four days after having to face the fact that his struggles contributed to the Braves’ inability to get past the Cardinals in the NLDS, Freeman traveled to New York to have a bone spur removed from the elbow. Multiple X-rays and MRIs completed over the previous two months had shown the spur was causing the discomfort.

But when Dr. David Altchek performed the surgery, he found three fragments and two spurs, including one that was about to crack and create even greater discomfort. Altchek determined that Freeman likely would not have been able to play in the NL Championship Series had the Braves advanced past the Cardinals.

“[Dr. Altchek] said, 'I don’t know how you played with this,' and I said, 'Doc, well I didn’t play very well,'” Freeman said.

Although the hitting and throwing exercises he's completed over the past six weeks have Freeman feeling better than he has in nearly a decade, he might never separate himself from the mental anguish he feels when he wonders what might have been after the division-rival Nationals rolled toward a World Series title. The Braves had won 11 of the final 16 games they played against the Nats last season, and had reason to believe they were capable of winning it all.

“I know we had a really good team,” Freeman said. “Everybody knows we had a really good team. The hunger is real after winning back-to-back division titles and seeing your division opponent win a World Series last year. It’s our turn. We’ve got a really, really good team again. It’s our turn to take that next step.”

With the additions of power-hitting outfielder Marcell Ozuna, left-handed reliever Will Smith and veteran starter Cole Hamels, the Braves have compensated for Josh Donaldson’s departure and built a team that is more complete than either of the past two, both of which won the NL East. But their hopes again rest on the presence of a healthy Freeman.

Freeman’s elbow had occasionally bothered him over the past few years, but the discomfort started to increase this past August. When an X-ray showed the spur, the hope was that the discomfort would subside and eventually disappear, like it had so often in the past. But the discomfort was only manageable until Sept. 12, when Freeman awoke in his Philadelphia hotel room and realized he could not raise his arm to wash his hair. 

Through Sept. 11, Freeman ranked sixth in the NL with a .973 OPS and was tied for fifth in home runs, with 38, but he went 4-for-36 with 11 strikeouts and just one extra-base hit (a double) over the remainder of the regular season. Despite resting for most of the regular season’s final week, he tasted even greater disappointment while going 4-for-20 with two extra-base hits (a double and a homer) during the NLDS. 

“I think everybody knows it takes a lot to get me out of the lineup, but it still wasn’t enough,” he said. “I was taking a lot of pain medication. I was feeling pain-free in the playoffs because I had a lot of medication going. I just didn’t play well. That’s on me. I’m never going to blame anything on the elbow. If I’m in the lineup, I expect to play well. I unfortunately did not.”