The Braves’ bullpen had its share of issues in 2018, but there are few players that caused as much heartburn and irritation as Sam Freeman did. Not all of the criticism of Freeman was fair, but he also did not do himself any favors this season and his future in the Braves’ bullpen is very much up in the air.
Sam Freeman was coming off a perfectly reasonable 2017 season for the Braves. He accumulated 0.7 fWAR (not awesome, but certainly not bad) while making 58 appearances (60 innings) and posting a 2.55 ERA and 3.34 FIP out of the bullpen. While he still walked too many guys (4.05 BB/9), he was still serviceable as a middle relief option.
Then came 2018 and things changed in some weird ways. Freeman’s FIP stayed right about the same at 3.66, but his ERA jumped to 4.29. His strikeout rate jumped up to 10.37 K/9 which is good, but his walk rate jumped up a lot to 5.72 BB/9 which is obviously quite poor. In fact, off all qualified relievers in 2018, only two other players (Justin Anderson and Steven Brault) had higher walk rates than Freeman in 2018. That ain’t good.
Part of the problem was Freeman’s usage as he was heavily utilized early in the season and it was clear that he wore down as the season went on. After holding opposing batters to a sub .200 batting average against him during April and May, they were hitting closer to .300 for June and July. Combining that with 13 walks in 17.1 innings in those summer months and it isn’t hard to see what his ERA was around 8 for June and July.
Freeman did have a DL stint and was much better in his return as he did not give up an earned run in August or September and his walk rate, while still too high, did come back down a bit. Ultimately, Freeman’s place on the roster comes down to how many upgrades in the bullpen the Braves find this offseason. There are several players that could find themselves without a job with the Braves including Freeman, but if one believes that Freeman’s struggles midseason were the exception and not the rule....he could very well be on the roster in 2019.
Bottom line, what did Sam Freeman do in 2019? He posted a 4.29 ERA and 3.66 FIP in 63 appearances (50 IP) while accumulating 0.3 fWAR. He also took several years off the life expectancy of many Braves fans as many of his relief appearances turned into an adventure.
Will he be on the roster in 2019? Honestly, I put the odds at about 50/50. I would certainly fault no one if they held the position that he needed to go. He was not good at all for a significant stretch of the 2018 season and he was one of the biggest culprits in terms of free passes in a bullpen that already gives up way too many of them.
On the other hand, he was grossly overused to start the season due to lack of reliable options in the bullpen and it is entirely possible that his injury was real and not just giving him a breather which would explain some of his struggles. He doesn’t have to be a lights out option in the bullpen and if his true self is somewhere between what he did last year and what he posted in 2018, he isn’t an unreasonable bullpen piece (although far from an exciting one). The walks are the biggest concern and if anything causes the team to move on from him, that would be it.
What will he do in 2019? Expect him to compete for a bullpen spot in spring training without a guaranteed spot. How much competition he has depends on what the Braves do this offseason (they will definitely add at least one bullpen arm and possibly more) and it is entirely possible they will invite a bunch of guys to spring training on non-guaranteed deals just to see as many options as possible. Expecting his 2019 numbers to be somewhere between his 2017 and 2018 numbers seems to be a reasonable expectation, although whether or not that is with the Braves is far from a certainty.