NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Now 30 years old and 12 years removed from sharing a clubhouse with John Smoltz and Chipper Jones during his first big league Spring Training, Freddie Freeman believes the Braves have reached a point where they should now be considered annual World Series contenders.
“I thought the time was now last year,” Freeman said. “That’s baseball, though. I thought we had a good team. I thought we had a chance to win the World Series. We just didn’t play up to our capabilities, especially me. I don’t think anybody in this clubhouse put a number on what year it would be. I thought we had a good chance of being a World Series team last year. I guess you could say we were a year ahead of schedule. But I think we have a great team again. World Series or nothing. I think that is every single year for us now.”
By the time the upcoming season is complete, Freeman will stand as one of 10 players who have played at least 1,400 games for the Braves. The four-time All-Star has experienced many highs and lows. But the most frustrating stretch of his career occurred over the final weeks of last season, when his right elbow tainted the final weeks of an MVP-caliber season and had him feeling helpless during the National League Division Series against the Cardinals.
When Freeman spoke at ChopFest last month, he detailed his frustrations, explained the surgery he underwent in October and revealed he likely would not have been available had the Braves advanced to the NLCS.
Fortunately, Freeman has arrived at Spring Training still excited about the fact that his elbow has felt better than it has in more than nine years. Those wondering if this is just more lip service should know he took swings in the batting cage, hit on the field and played a round of golf in pain-free fashion on Monday. He returned on Tuesday ready to enjoy a similar schedule.
“There’s probably nobody more excited about this camp than Freddie because of the health issues and how good his elbow does feel,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He started his offseason hitting earlier than normal. He looks great and he’s excited about what we have going on.”
While Freeman was among those hopeful for the opportunity to continue playing with Josh Donaldson, he believes the lineup could prove to be every bit as strong with Marcell Ozuna batting behind him in the cleanup spot. Ozuna produced a .779 OPS over the past two seasons with the Cardinals, but he’s just three years removed from having hit 37 homers with a .924 OPS for the 2017 Marlins.
“I saw him trot a lot that season against us,” Freeman said. “He’s a presence in the middle of that lineup. If healthy, I don’t see him as a .240 hitter. I think he’s going to be a force. I think he’s going to make our lineup that much deeper.”
Freeman has already started to think about how the three-batter minimum rule might lead to him facing more right-handed relievers because opposing managers could be leery of having to keep the lefty in to face Ozuna. He’s also excited to see where Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies take their respective superstar potentials this year.
But for the Braves to realize their potential, they’ll once again rely on Freeman, who believes his success will be positively influenced by the presence of Ozuna, who has the potential to be the same imposing and productive middle-of-the-lineup threat that Donaldson was last year.
“I think [Ozuna] will make it very tough on opposing managers if they really want to face me,” Freeman said. “I think it’s going to be the same as it was with Josh last year. I think we’ll pick up right where the 2019 lineup left off. He’ll fit right in and we’ll be really, really good again.”