2012 Key Player: David Freese

Will David Freese build off his postseason success?

Had things gone slightly differently last season, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

Had the world champion St. Louis Cardinals not clawed back from 10½ games behind in the wild-card race with 31 games to play — or 8½ games back with 21 to play, or three back with five to play — to sneak into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, David Freese wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion as fantasy owners prep for draft day.

David Freese earned MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series, but is that enough for fantasy owners to make him a top option at a weak third base position?

Entering 2011, Freese barely cracked the ESPN top-20 rankings at third base, and he did little during the regular season to boost his stock, finishing outside the top 250 on the ESPN Player Rater and ranking just 22nd among third basemen by hitting .297 with 10 dingers and 55 RBIs in 333 at-bats.

Oh, what a difference a few extra weeks can make. Freese looked like a different player over the course of the Cardinals’ 18-game postseason run, batting .397 with five home runs and a playoff-record 21 RBIs and earning MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series. Not only that, but his game-tying, two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth inning (with two outs and two strikes, no less) and his game-winning, walk-off homer in the bottom of the 11th in Game 6 to force a Game 7 will go down as two of the biggest postseason hits of all time, which could inflate Freese’s draft day price tag by themselves.

The first problem with gleaning too much from Freese’s postseason outburst is obviously the small sample size. An 18-game hot streak in June or July, no matter how impressive, would go largely unnoticed in the grand scheme of a 162-game season, so we shouldn’t put extra stock into a hot streak that happens in October. One can argue that a hot streak late in the season is more telling than one in the middle of the year, as I suppose it’s more likely to be a sign of growth, but there isn’t precedence for players showing new skills in October and having them carry over into the following season. In 2008, for example, B.J. Upton hit just nine home runs in 531 regular-season at-bats and then went on to hit seven homers in 66 at-bats in the postseason, causing many to predict that we’d see a power surge in 2009. Upton did eventually cash in on some of his untapped power potential, but it didn’t happen in 2009, when he hit just 11 dingers in 560 at-bats.

So if we remove last year’s postseason from the equation and take a step back to get a big-picture, helicopter view, what do we see? Despite turning 29 years old in late April, Freese has just 604 big league at-bats under his belt over three seasons. And that leads us into the major concern with Freese: his ability to stay healthy. The Cardinals third baseman missed more than half of the 2010 season with an ankle injury, and a left hand injury sidelined him for 51 games last year, not to mention a concussion that forced him to miss time in August. We currently have him projected for 470 at-bats — a plateau he could very well reach — but if we’re simply going off his big league track record, expecting even that many may be optimistic.

Injuries aren’t the only problem when evaluating Freese. Despite the .794 slugging percentage in the playoffs last year, there are questions about how much power potential he really possesses. While Freese hit 26 home runs at Triple-A in 2008, he hasn’t hit more than 13 homers in a season since and has just 15 dingers in 604 big league at-bats. Yes, part of that is attributed to his inability to stay healthy, but the metrics don’t say there’s a ton of power upside here. Last year’s fly ball rate was just 23.1 percent — down from 29.1 percent in 2010 — and his 16.7 percent HR/FB rate could regress in 2012, which obviously doesn’t bode well for a future power spike.

That said, we shouldn’t completely rule out the possibility for some future power growth, either. At nearly 29 years old, Freese is in his hitting prime, and it’s fair to assume that his power numbers last year were at least somewhat negatively affected by his hand injury. He wouldn’t be the first player to have some of his power sapped by a hand or wrist injury, after all.

As mentioned, Freese hit 26 homers in 131 Triple-A games in 2008, so it’s not like he’s never shown the ability to hit for power. And while his isolated power (which measures a player’s raw power in terms of extra-base hits) last year was just .131, he posted a .238 ISO in 664 Triple-A at-bats between 2008 and 2009. That’s not to say his minor league power will ever fully translate, but let’s face it, he probably hasn’t even been in the big leagues long enough for us to make that determination considering we’ve basically seen only one full season’s worth of playing time from Freese. Heck, it took former top prospect Alex Gordon nearly 1,500 big league at-bats before he finally put things together last season, and Freese wasn’t even half the prospect Gordon was. A full season of at-bats — still far from guaranteed, obviously — could result in a level of power production we haven’t yet seen from him at the big league level.

If all else fails, there’s one thing Freese has already proved he can do, and that’s hit. Despite a less-than-ideal contact rate (77 percent) in his big league career, he boasts a .298 batting average in 604 career at-bats, he improved his strikeout rate last year, and had he qualified, his 24.6 percent line-drive rate would’ve ranked fifth in the National League. He was also a career .307 hitter with a .384 OBP in the minors. Perhaps his batting average last year was aided by his .356 batting average on balls in play, but he’s been a high BABIP guy his entire professional career, so that’s not a huge concern. Projecting Freese to settle in as a .280-.300 hitter seems like a safe bet.

However unlikely it may be, the absolute best-case scenario with Freese in 2012 is that he stays healthy all year, shows growth in the power department and continues to hit for average. Should all of that happen, the result could be something close to a .300 average with 20-25 homers and 90-100 RBIs. Those numbers would mirror the season fantasy owners just got from Aramis Ramirez, who hit .306-26-93 last year and was a top-five fantasy third baseman. The odds are that Freese will fall well short of those numbers (particularly the home run total), whether because of injury or simply failing to produce, so don’t draft him with that kind of production in mind. Still, it’s reasonable to think there could be some untapped potential in Freese’s bat, with the upside being a top-10 fantasy third baseman, and potentially more given the lack of many high-end options at the position.

Based on current ADP data at Mock Draft Central, Freese is being drafted 162nd overall and 11th at third base. That’s several spots higher than our ESPN rankings, which rank him 16th at the position. (Note: ESPN live draft data will be available in early March.) This means that, in a standard 10-team league, Freese can generally be drafted in the 17th round or later. For the injury risk involved, that’s not a bad spot. If you’re going to draft Freese, it’s best to plan for some time on the disabled list and not expect more than the 10-15 home run power he’s displayed thus far. That way you won’t be disappointed if the injury bug bites again or he fails to make strides in the power department, and you still have some potential upside built into his draft slot if everything goes right.

David Freese is the subject of the April 2012 Computer Desktop Calendar from D-Two.net.  Get yours here.

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