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Starting Nine: The untold story of when Freddie Freeman raced future Heisman contender Dennis Dixon

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Plus, concern level with Shane Greene, and whether we’ll see any young Braves in Olympic qualifiers

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MLB: Chicago White Sox at Atlanta Braves
Freddie Freeman may have a 26.4 sprint speed, but that didn’t stop him in his high school days from racing a future Heisman Trophy contender.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is in full swing but humor me for a moment as this week marked the release of my updated Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout (available here). It includes an in-depth chapter on Freddie Freeman’s rise to franchise cornerstone, and here’s one of my favorite nuggets from the 6,000-plus words I expended on the four-time All-Star first baseman:

No one is going to mistake him for a burner on the base paths, ranking 12th among all Braves last season with a 26.4 sprint speed and 23rd at his position in MLB, but, as the cliché says, you can’t measure heart. Before he was drafted, Freeman worked out in California with a group that included Mike Moustakas, Josh Vitters, Christian Colon and ... Dennis Dixon. Yes, THAT Dennis Dixon, the quarterback that was making a run at a Heisman Trophy for Oregon in 2007 before he tore his knee. Dixon, Freeman and Co. ran the 60-yard dash against each other back in those workouts, with Dixon the fastest and Freeman the slowest of the bunch.

But Freeman was determined to close the gap. “He must have run it six or seven times and finally got down to a number that was sort of OK,” his father, Fred, told me. “(Scout) Tom (Battista) probably gave him the number just so he’d stop. It was pretty funny.”

Recalled Freeman about those sprints: “Obviously I knew I was going to lose every single time I raced Dennis, but I would try and find a way to win.” He smiled. “Let me go more than 60 yards and we’ll see what happens.”

Now, back to what we’re seeing play out on the field in the Grapefruit League, where results are the reason for high anxiety and excitement for Braves fans as we take a trip around the diamond in the Starting Nine.

1. What’s the concern level with Shane Greene?

There’s no bigger small sample size trap than spring training, which is ripe for overreactions, both positive and negative. Which is why it has to be hard to talk a Braves fan down from the ledge after what we’ve seen from three appearances from Shane Greene. The right-hander has given up six runs, five of them earned, on six hits in 2 2/3 innings, with three strikeouts and two walks. Greene has thrown just 64.5 percent of his pitches for strikes and righties, who he held to a .210 wOBA last season, are hitting .556 against him. With the addition of Will Smith and Mark Melancon as the expected closer, save opportunities won’t come often for Greene, but even as a setup man, he’s not doing much in these early looks to generate a lot of enthusiasm.

2. On Christian Bethancourt and setting the Braves back at catcher

Who can forget Christian Bethancourt, who went deep twice for the Phillies against the Braves on Monday. Once the third-ranked prospect in the organization back in 2013 and twice in the game’s top 100 (82nd in 2014 and 93rd in ‘15), it never worked out for the Panama product with the Braves. Despite his unquestionable physical tools behind the plate — Bethancourt’s 1.91 average pop time in 2016, albeit on just 11 attempts, was fourth in the game — he hit .219/.245/.283 over parts of three seasons with just 13 extra-base hits in 278 plate appearances. Frankly, preparation may have been his biggest enemy. In 2015, when he was preparing for a start, Bethancourt wasn’t going over game film, he was playing a baseball video game on his iPad and told me he was years into a dynasty mode. It’s not hard to see a thru line in the Braves investing so much into Bethancourt and being willing to let Brian McCann walk after the 2014 season, then being set back as the young catcher didn’t develop as they’d hoped. That led to the revolving door of veteran pairings with Tyler Flowers and needing to spend a first-round pick on a catcher for the first time since 1989 when they grabbed Shea Langeliers at No. 9 in June. The franchise at least now has hope for the future with William Contreras and Langeliers and maybe Alex Jackson if his spring defensive improvements are any indication.

3. It’s OK to take days off, Freddie Freeman

Rest was a hot topic last offseason, with an emphasis on the likes of Freddie Freeman, who shows up to spring training with one stated goal in mind: play 162 games. He did that in 2018 and was in 158 last season and didn’t sit out until Sept. 22, after the Braves had already clinched the division. “If I’m healthy, I’m playing every game,” Freeman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Cunningham this week. “That’s just how I am.” Snitker has admitted in the past that there are certain players that will lobby hard to stay in the lineup when days off are suggested, and Freeman has to be at the top of that list. Seeing that bolded “162” on his Baseball Reference page is one thing, but in his ironman 2018, Freeman faded in the postseason with a .732 OPS and one extra-base hit and we know what happened last year with an elbow that was far worse than anyone was aware. With the first baseman having already sat out this spring with inflammation in his surgically-repaired elbow — and the admissions of how much he actually was hurting late last season — it may be in the best interest of player and organization to take the decision of how many games he plays out of Freeman’s hands.

4. Hot spring positive trend for Ozzie Albies after slow start to 2019

There’s only one Grapefruit League player that has more hits right now than Ozzie Albies’ eight. Like the aforementioned Bethancourt, it’s another blast from the past in the form of ex-Braves infielder Rio Ruiz, who has 11 for the Orioles. Forecasting doom for the regular season for Greene based on his struggles in Florida would be unfair and getting too excited about what lies ahead for Albies based on what we’ve seen in a handful of spring at-bats is misguided ... but the man is raking. Albies entered Thursday’s games 8 for 18 with a pair of doubles and a .444/.447/.556 slash line and has just one hitless game (Feb. 28 vs. the Yankees). Albies’ worst two months of 2019 came in the first months of the season when he had 117 wRC+ in April and was 47 percent below league average in May, but finding his groove early in what amounts to the most consistent of his five as a full-time contributor are a very positive trend.

5. If Johan Camargo wins the job, is Triple-A really the answer for Austin Riley?

Johan Camargo and Austin Riley’s battle for third base rages on. The former is hitting .389/.421/.611 in 18 at-bats to the latter’s .316/.316/.526, and both have a double and a home run (with Riley’s claiming the scoreboard as a victim) and three strikeouts, and if the offense remains in shouting distance of each other, the Camargo defense — which in 2018, when we saw him get an actual chance to log major innings at third base produced six DRS, the second-most in the National League at the position and 7.1 Defensive Runs Above Average (seventh overall) — is the likely deciding factor. As manager Brian Snitker said earlier this week, it’s unlikely that the Braves would keep both on the 26-man roster to ensure consistent playing time for the loser of this duel in Triple-A. But if it’s Camargo that wins, is Gwinnett really the best landing spot for Riley? As we discussed last week, the slider was his biggest issue and if MLB-level breaking balls are vexing him, is Riley going to see it in the minors? Getting into a rhythm with reps at the plate may be more beneficial, but it’s likely we won’t see things having fixed themselves if part of the solution is the right-hander feasting on Triple-A pitching.

6. Welcome to elite prospect status, Braden Shewmake

Keith Law released his top 100 prospect list, with shortstop Braden Shewmake making the cut at No. 94 and is also the seventh-ranked player in the organization per MLB Pipeline, putting the 21st player taken in last year’s draft between two mainstays on these breakdowns in Bryse Wilson and Kyle Muller. Shewmake, who has a double and three hits in 13 at-bats this spring, slashed .300/.371/.425 across Class-A Rome and Double-A Mississippi with 18 doubles, two triples and a pair of home runs over 247 at-bats. He played in just 14 games in Mississippi — offsetting an impressive 12.8 strikeout rate in Rome with 11 Ks in 46 ABs in Double-A — and the 22-year-old is likely to start the season there. The injury to Dansby Swanson last year, which prompted the Braves to bring in Mets castoff Adeiny Hechavarría, showed the lack of depth in the middle infield going forward, and taking Shewmake laid the groundwork for a solution. Read into this as you want as to whether he’s a fallback option if Swanson can’t lock it down with consistency (in production and staying on the field), but at this point, Shewmake is an intriguing and refined prospect that could be knocking on the door in a hurry.

7. In perception and performance, Marcell Ozuna couldn’t have gotten off to worse start

It’s not been a good stretch for Marcell Ozuna. The outfielder no doubt irked some Braves fans when he said that, in hindsight, after watching the way his free agency played out, he regretted turning down the qualifying offer and sticking with the Cardinals, and, so far, the results on the field haven’t been pretty. He has yet to get his first hit in a Braves uniform and has racked up seven strikeouts in his first 13 at-bats, three less whiffs than he had last spring in 26 more ABs with St. Louis. Strikeouts haven’t exactly been a problem for Ozuna, who fanned 114 times last season and 110 the year before. By comparison, in his dominant 2017, in which he had 143 wRC+, he fanned 144 times and in four of the last five years, he’s produced K-rates that are at or below the league average. Rebound after a season in which his 49.2 percent hard hit balls (11th in MLB) was pulled down by a .257 BABIP, and no one will remember these first weeks of camp, but there Ozuna couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start with Braves, in performance and perception.

8. Braves won’t be part of another international incident ... right?

That’s tongue-in-cheek folks, as this has nothing to do with the sanctions that were part of the previous regime. In February, it was reported that the Dominican Republic would ask permission to put wunderkind prospect Cristian Pache won its roster for this month’s Olympic qualifier. The teams are under no obligation to allow it, and while Pache is unlikely to make the Opening Day roster for Atlanta, he is on the 40-man roster, which they could have leaned on if looking to avoid potential injury, as players on a team’s 40-man needed to be replaced. But with MLB announcing that so long as those players aren’t on the active roster, they could be used (with permission, of course), it would be stunning for the Braves to not let him play or others that could be asked (i.e. Drew Waters who played for Team USA in the fall or Kyle Wright, if he’s not in the rotation). Yes, potential injury is a concern, and there’s also the matter of the coronavirus outbreak, but it would certainly be a memorable experience for the organization’s top farm hand. It could provide the pressure-filled kind of moments that the franchise would be happy to have him experience before he even reaches the majors.

9. Early playing time window into Adam Duvall’s usage?

Last winter, playing Adam Duvall seemed like a worst-case scenario after his abysmal first months in a Braves uniform. But then he delivered a single season Gwinnett home run record, going deep 32 times, went on to post 121 wRC+ in 130 ABs at the major league level and had an .879 OPS in the postseason. Splits tell us he’s the best option in a corner outfield spot against left-handers, who he hit 78 percent above league average against last season and four percent above in his career, but is early playing just early playing time or is Duvall playing his way into more consistent ABs than previously thought? He’s started in nine of the 12 spring games thus far, with an .855 OPS with three doubles and has yet to strikeout in 21 trips to the plate. It may not be indicative of anything, as Ronald Acuña Jr. has played in seven games, but Duvall is taking advantage of ample opportunities.