Freese's career is all about persistence

2012-07-09T00:10:00Z 2012-07-26T20:17:12Z Freese's career is all about persistenceBY JOE STRAUSS • Cardinals Insider
July 09, 2012 12:10 am  • 

Thanks to the Cardinals' hyperactive and internet-savvy marketing campaign, an ever-responsive fan base and, of course, his own talent, third baseman and postseason hero David Freese last week gained 8.6 million recorded expressions of support to become the 34th and supposedly final member of the National League All-Star team.

Thanks to more consistent health and improved defense, Freese has emerged as a regular-season fixture rather than a health tease whose manager distrusted him in late innings of close games.

The road has never been a short or smooth one for Freese, which makes his path to Major League Baseball's Midsummer Classic appropriately complicated.

He didn't play a game above Class A until he was within a month of his 24th birthday. His ascent likely would have taken longer if not for a stunning December 2007 trade that sent him from the San Diego Padres to his hometown club in return for center fielder Jim Edmonds.

Ankle problems will likely follow him for the rest of his life due to a single-car accident suffered shortly before 2009 spring training.

Without warning Freese's right ankle came apart rounding third base during an August rehab assignment at Springfield, leading to season-ending surgery.

Freese, now 29, will always be a recovering alcoholic, a realization he faced following his Maryland Heights arrest in December 2009.

Freese's career is all about persistence squared. He is a baseball Job.

He idled behind Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chase Headley for two years within the Padres' minor-league system.

The Lafayette High and Meramec Community College alum was good enough to hit .297 last season while producing a RBI every six at-bats. However, he saw the field enough to hit only 10 home runs with 55 RBIs. Questions about his glove, and the ready availability of Gold Glove nominee Daniel Descalso, let him play only four complete games after last Aug. 23.

Now Freese approaches arbitration as a first-time All-Star and the reigning National League Championship Series and World Series Most Valuable Player. He has emerged from local boy made good to an ESPN cover boy whose visibility increased exponentially last winter.

So what do the Cardinals do with him now?

Freese remains "under control" of the club through 2015. But this season represents the platform that will shape his value for the next three seasons. Within the last decade the Cardinals have circumvented arbitration with pitchers Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia, ex-first baseman Albert Pujols, Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina and second baseman Skip Schumaker. They did so by negotiating extensions that grant a player instant security in return for delaying their free agency for a year or two.

To date no talks have occurred between the club and Freese's agent, Nez Balelo.

By itself, the absence of negotiations does not make Freese unique. However, his medical history does.

Freese has yet to play 100 games in a season. His 78 games appearances this year are second-most in his four major-league seasons. Freese retains an outside shot of reaching 300 at-bats Sunday, which would leave him only 33 shy of the career-most he set in 2011. He is already within 31 innings of equaling last season's exposure at third base.

"We want him on the field as much as possible," manager Mike Matheny says. "He's made some great plays. He can go to his left and right. Coming in he's surprised quite a few guys who've tried to drop a bunt on him. We keep him in there all game and we keep throwing him out there because he's a big part of our lineup. The durability and the defense are two things that haven't been noticeable before and he's showing it now."

Freese enters Sunday fourth among major league third baseman in average, fifth in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and tied for fourth in RBIs. The New York Mets' David Wright is the only NL third baseman to lead Freese in those categories. Freese is also drawing a $508,000 base salary, making him one of the game's best bargains.

"I think sometimes you do ask yourself how you compare," he says.

Short of the season prior to free agency, a player's platform season entering arbitration typically ranks as the most significant of his career from a financial standpoint. What he receives in his first bite of the apple compounds itself as he goes through it a second and third time.

"You play baseball your whole life you want to get to the point where you can have some security," Freese said. "There's many ways to go about that. It's up to the Cardinals. They have to decide how they want to go about it."

Under general managers Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak, the Cardinals have often moved to pre-empt the process by negotiating a multi-year extension.

"Every player is different," reminds Mozeliak, who traded for Freese less than two months after taking over as Cardinals general manager in October 2007. "Is he going about showing that he can be a core player? Yes, and part of that is because he's out there every day. And even at a relatively young age he's also shown a presence in the clubhouse."

Freese says he is not consumed by this year's role in future earnings.

"I have no problem going year to year if that's what I need to do," he said last week. "I say that because of how I feel physically. I think I'll continue to put up numbers. If that's what they want to work toward, maybe we can find a happy medium. But as far as thinking about what's next, I'm not worried about that one bit."

But the statement is incomplete. At times this season, especially during a prolonged May struggle, Freese fought to maintain perspective. He admits that his May, colored by a .211 average and poor plate discipline, became the toughest on-field experience of his career.

An average that stood at .333 on April 30 tumbled to .265 on May 23, briefly righted itself, then dropped to a season-low .257 on June 2.

Matheny briefly benched Freese following a difficult West Coast road trip, the same trip that cost the club Lance Berkman and Kyle McClellan. A hand injury sidelined him for two games in Atlanta the same month.

Usually a production machine, Freese scraped for 10 RBIs in a 31-game span that ran through June 5.

"I could feel things going downhill," he said. "We weren't winning. I take that personally. Understanding how the game works, it's still hard not to feel the effects. It's tough to not be contributing the way you want while the team isn't winning ballgames, especially when you're a big part of the team."

The injured Berkman was among those who counseled Freese, reminding him that a talented player's production tends to right itself over time.

Berkman emphasized to Freese that if he remained healthy his numbers would follow. Others, including left fielder Matt Holliday, offered similar encouragement.

Freese travels to Kansas City Sunday night as the people's choice. He will take along more than 50 RBIs, an average that again approaches .300 and an example for those who have taken a blind turn within their career.

Freese says he can wait on the Cardinals. He knows he has dealt with far worse before.

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