Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What David Freese Means

This isn't really fair, but David Freese is kind of a one-hit wonder. His moment in the sun--granted, it was a big moment--was the 2011 postseason. That year, he batted .278 as the Cardinals beat the Phillies, three games to two, in the Divisional Series. In the fourth game of that series, with the Cards trailing two games to one, he came to bat in the bottom of the fourth with the Cardinals losing 2-1 and hit a double, driving in two runs and giving St. Louis the lead. In the sixth, he put the game on ice, hitting a two-run homer. He was MVP when St. Louis topped Milwaukee in six games in the Championship Series, batting .545 and slugging 1.091 with three homes and nine RBI. He was MVP of the World Series as well, batting .348 with a 1.160 OPS, remembered mostly for his game-winning home run in the eleventh inning of the wild 10-9 Cardinals victory in Game 6, enabled by his two-run, two-out triple on a 1-2 count in the last of the ninth, tying the score at seven. (Those hits erased the memory of his error in the fifth that led to a Rangers run, necessitating his extra-innings heroics.) The following night, in the Series-winning game, he got the Redbirds on the board with a two-run, two-out double on a full count in the bottom of the first, tying the score at two in a game St. Louis won 6-2. 
(Pirates fans will also remember that Freese hit a two-run homer off Gerrit Cole in the second inning of the last game of the 2013 Divisional Series against the Cardinals, starting St. Louis on their way to a 6-1 victory.)
As I said, that isn't really fair. Freese was good as a part-time player leading into the 2011 postseason (combined .298/.354/.429 slash line, a park-adjusted OPS 15% better than the league average, in 184 games spread over three seasons) and better in 2012 (.293/.372/.467, 29% better than average). He slumped to a pedestrian .262/.340/.381 in 2013, was traded to the Angels, was no better in 2014 (.260/.321/.383) before rebounding a bit last year, to .257/.323/.420. He was a late bloomer--he was 28 at the time of his postseason heroics--and he'll turn 33 at the end of April, a more or less league-average right-handed hitting third baseman who's never played more than 144 games in a season.
And, as of last Friday, a Pirate. The Pirates signed Freese, a free agent for the first time in his career, to a cheap one-year, $3 million deal. It represents a pay cut from what he made in 2013 ($3,150,000), 2014 ($5,050,000), and 2015 ($6,425,000). In other words, it was a very Pirates-like signing.
Signing David Freese says a couple things about the Pirates as they enter the season, it seems to me.
First, incumbent third baseman Jung Ho Kang is not going to be ready for the start of the season as he continues his recovery from last year's season-ending knee injury. I don't think anyone's surprised that Kang won't be ready for Opening Day. This deal, though, suggests to me that we may not see Kang until May, and he may be eased back into the lineup then. If Kang were to be out of action for just a few games, the Pirates would probably be content to plug Sean Rodriguez into the lineup, either at third or at second with Josh Harrison sliding over to third. Freese seems more of a weeks-long, rather than games-long, fill-in.
Second, the Pirates may try to move Michael Morse. GM Neal Huntington, when Freese was signed, indicated that the new Pirate will play first as well as third. With lefty-swinging John Jaso and righty Morse already set to platoon at the position, the Pirates would seem to be overstocked at first. Morse appears to be the odd man out, as he turns 34 next week, has less positional versatility (he can play outfield in the sense that Pedro Alvarez could play third base), and he arguably has more trade value than Freese. Morse has more power than Freese (.461 career slugging percentage, home runs in 3.8% of plate appearances vs. .417 and 2.5% for Freese) and, oddly, is cheaper. Morse is owed $8.5 million in 2016, the last year of a two-year, $16 million free agent contract he signed with the Marlins after the 2014 season. But the team from whom the Pirates acquired Morse, the Dodgers, are on the hook for the full amount, so the Pirates could market him as a "free" player.
Long term? Freese is a decent enough bench player. He's an OK third baseman, an OK right handed batter who doesn't have particularly bad platoon splits, and while he's played only 21 innings at first in the majors, he seems athletic enough to handle the position. He bolsters a somewhat thin Pittsburgh bench. But if his presence means that the Pirates are going to be without Kang for more than a few weeks, that's bad news. 

No comments:

Post a Comment