ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 12: David Freese #23 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws to first base against the Colorado Rockies at Busch Stadium on August 12, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Rockies 6-1. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
I can't talk about the Milwaukee Brewers right now, because they are moving too fast to scientifically observe. Let's talk about David Freese's rookie season, which, 154 games in, is finally just about over. It's been a great one! He's hit .311/.366/.436, with 12 home runs and 24 doubles and above-averageish defense at third base. Of course, it's also taken three years. If you can remember, three years ago, when David Freese was a kind-of-old slugger in the minor leagues, let's see how well the David Freese we expected maps onto the David Freese we got.
Hitting: A 122 OPS+ was a best-case scenario for Freese the Redbird, but the way he's gotten to it has continued to mystify me. Despite the strikeouts, the lack of walks, and our expectations for his position, Freese has managed to keep the average but lose the power. In Memphis he was a .303/.362/.538 hitter in 191 games who struck out in a quarter of his at-bats and homered in five percent; in St. Louis he's a .311/.366/.436 hitter who strikes out in about a quarter of his at-bats and homers half as frequently.
Down goes the isolated power, by more than a hundred points. Freese was playing in hitters' leagues his entire career, and old for all of them, but given his plate discipline and his strikeouts I expected the power to stick and the average to fall—the same guess I had for fellow tweener-slugger-third-baseman Allen Craig, who's fooled me thus far by hitting for both average and power.
In the long term David Freese's .379 career BAbip will go down and we will say to ourselves, toasting Voros McCracken all the while for making us look like wizards, "I knew it! His BAbip would go down!" But I don't think that does a satisfactory job of predicting what kind of hitter Freese really is, and his slight jump in isolated power this season—though still well below his minor league norms—will go a long way toward explaining that.
In the meantime, we can be grateful that history has given us a totally capable third baseman with above-average contact skills and 15-home-run power with which to compare every whelming young third baseman: If he strikes out less and otherwise keeps doing this, he might be Joe Randa!
Defense: Call it the Reid Brignac Rule, with, perhaps, a Daniel Descalso Corollary—I'm done paying attention to scouting reports on minor leaguers' defense unless they say "He absolutely can't play POSITION" or "He is the greatest POSITIONer/man I have ever seen" or "Brett Wallace? A POSITION? You delusional ass." Brignac was seen as an elite hitting prospect who might not stick at shortstop until he became a brilliant shortstop prospect who might not hit enough; Descalso, closer to home, was an indifferent convert to second base until he passed the Tony La Russa Positional Grab Bag test so beautifully.
Freese, in 2007, was a third baseman whose position was only interesting inasmuch as he was briefly tried at catcher.
The current idea that Freese is an above-average third baseman, or at worst so average as to moot any further discussion about it, might come from the litany of players the Cardinals have tried in his absence who are so clearly not third basemen, or else it might come from the way our minds are processing his smooth-line-drive-hitter offensive profile. Wherever it comes from, it's relatively new and, according to the defensive metrics, accurate as far as it goes. TZ kind of likes him; UZR is indifferent; DRS is not a fan.
Health: Once upon a time David Freese played 128 games in high-A and 71 games the year he was drafted. He peaked at 131 in Memphis in 2008, out of 142, before he became the David Freese we know. He played 81 games in 2009—counting a rehab stint—70 in 2010, and he's played 67 in 2011.
It's hard to say much about something like this, which can't really be scouted and doesn't occur frequently enough—even for David Freese—to be analyzed in a large sample. Whatever the reason, however old he was for the California League in 2007 I still expected him to have played in 154 games before he turned 28.
Outlook: His advanced age, such as it is, for an unproven player and his impossible health history make it difficult to see him as a long-term part for a Cardinals team that has another old-for-his-league hitter in Matt Carpenter and another shouldn't-he-be-hitting-home-runs type in Zack Cox on the depth chart.
He'll be cheap for a while yet, but if the Cardinals miss the postseason this year and decide there'll be some changes made I can see Mozeliak trading Freese to a team in need of a cheap, potentially above-average third baseman for help, say, in the middle infield. That might require more faith in Matt Carpenter or Allen Craig than the organization has, or else more faith in Zack Cox than I have, but he strikes me as the most replaceable of the Cardinals' irreplaceably cheap assets.