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Starting Nine: Second? Third? Old thinking makes Freddie Freeman’s lineup spot inevitable

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Plus, expectations for Ian Anderson, Ender Inciarte keeping positive mindset and more love for Cristian Pache

MLB: NLCS-Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers
Freddie Freeman hit second in 17 of the Braves’ last 18 regular-season games, slashing .382/.494/.779 with six home runs, nine doubles and 21 RBI to cap his NL MVP run.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Consider any brainstorm sessions the Braves were planning for hype video for the 2021 season moot. Reigning National League MVP Freddie Freeman beat them to the punch, as he relayed a conversation with Hall of Famer and new hitting consultant Chipper Jones while working out at the team’s North Port, Fla., facility.

“[He] said, ‘You have every award now, but you’re still missing one thing.’ I said, ‘Yup, I know it and I’m coming for it,’” Freeman said. “... I can pretty much match Chipper here if I get that World Series ring.”

The expectations are clear after finishing one win away from the World Series and as we inch closer to the Braves opening their defense of a third straight NL East crown, there’s plenty to dig into from spring training. The Starting Nine is here with storylines, news, notes and tidbits from camp.

1. Second? Third? Where Freddie Freeman will hit seems inevitable

During his MVP 2020, Freeman logged the first substantial plate appearances of his career hitting second, and the results — a 1.202 OPS in 125 PAs — helped pave the way for his hardware-laden winter. But without the designated hitter in the NL in 2021, and pitchers needing to pick up a bat again, Freeman believes he’ll be sliding back in the order again.

“The 2-hole with the pitcher hitting, the opportunities for RBI situations aren’t as great, but I do realize that hitting in the 2-hole over 162 games, you’re going to get way more appearances than you would in the 3-hole,” Freeman said. “I think I’m going to hit third, probably, at the beginning and figure it out. We can figure that out in spring training, too. That’s up to (Braves manager Brian Snitker).”

Snitker said he hasn’t discussed it with Freeman yet, saying “He’s been really busy, and I got like 15 minutes with him between everything. We’ll talk about that down the road.”

It makes sense that hitting second may provide more at-bats, but the path the Braves will end up taking seems pretty clear given the NL’s operating procedure with pitchers needing to hit.

In full seasons since the inception of the DH in 1973, just five times have the NL’s No. 2 hitters collectively had more RBI than their American League counterparts, while the NL’s No. 3 hitters have driven in more runs than the AL’s 17 times in that span. Go back the past 25 full seasons and the NL had more than two No. 2 hitters in MLB’s top five in RBI just once but had three or more in the top five of runs driven in among No. 3 hitters 17 times and had four of the top five five times.

Even in the first year of the DH in the NL in 2020, it was hard to get away from that line of thinking, with the AL’s No. 2s accumulating 536 RBIs to the NL’s 483, while the NL’s 520 RBI out of the No. 3 hitters topped the AL at 491.

Never mind that during the last 18 games of last season Freeman hit second in 17 of them and slashed .382/.494/.779 with six home runs, nine doubles and 21 RBI to put the icing on his MVP run or the additional times the Braves would potentially have the bat in Freeman’s hands. From 2014-19, no player in baseball logged more plate appearances at No. 2 than the Angels’ Mike Trout at 2,477, giving him an average of 4.43 PAs in that span, while Freeman, with more PAs than any other player at No. 3 (3,701) averaged 4.37 in that time frame. If Freeman is at No. 2, that could mean 10 or more PAs a season. It’s not an astronomical number, but it matters when it comes to a bat the value of Freeman.

But it seems that with the NL reverting, the lineup will fall back into old habits with the specter of a pitcher holding a bat again.

“It worked out well last year in the 2-hole,” Freeman said. “It’s just hard when you have the pitcher hitting ninth. You don’t know. It’s a whole different animal. We’ll figure it out by April 1.”

2. What are realistic expectations for Ian Anderson?

Going to go ahead and throw this out there and keep it handy if you’d like to expose any hot takes at season’s end: Ian Anderson is not going to have a 1.95 ERA over his first full regular season. I know, it’s pretty outlandish, but the right-hander set an impossible bar over his first six in-season starts and then a scoreless 17 2/3 innings to start his postseason career. The 22-year-old has shown remarkable composure, with Snitker saying that even when he first arrived in the clubhouse, Anderson carried himself like a veteran. “He slows the game down, trusts his stuff and is on the attack,” Snitker said. “He’s like way advanced for his experience.” Anderson figures to be on the shortlist of NL Rookie of the Year contenders — which hasn’t been won by a starting pitcher since Jose Fernandez and Jacob deGrom won in consecutive years in 2013 and ‘14, respectively — but the setbacks are inevitable. In the expansion era, Steve Rogers has the best ERA (1.54) of any rookie, logging 17 starts for the Expos in 1973, with the aforementioned Fernandez proving the gold standard over the past 16 years with a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts with the Marlins. The projections aren’t expecting anything quite so historic for Anderson with Steamer slating him for a 4.21 ERA and ZiPS forecasting him at 4.15 and since 1978, just one Braves rookie starter has posted an ERA under 3.00, with Tommy Hanson (2.89) in 2009. If Anderson is somewhere in the middle of Hanson and those forecasts, it figures to be a solid first full season. But that poise continues to be the separator and the reason a regression may not be as distinct as Steamer and ZiPS are projecting. In Anderson’s spring debut he was rolling before allowing three straight singles against the Twins on Tuesday before eventually getting out of the second inning without any damage. “I feel like that is my M.O. recently,” Anderson said. “It would be a lot better if I didn’t have to deal with that stuff. But it’s good to know I have it in me when the big situations come up.”

3. Ender Inciarte won’t go calmly into the night

His fWAR declining in each of the last two seasons — dropping to 0.9 in 2019 and minus-0.6 last year after an average of 2.9 in his first three years in Atlanta — and Cristian Pache coming for his starting job, a quite spring would be understandable for Ender Inciarte. But the three-time Gold Glove winner seems out to prove he’s not going quietly. “I’m here trying to prove that I can still be myself and have fun,” Inciarte said. “... I know everybody here’s pulling for me and I’m just trying to be my best every day.” He made a diving catch Tuesday against the Twins, likely saving multiple runs and has a pair of hits through his first four at-bats with a steal. The bat has been Inciarte’s biggest issue, hitting 60 percent below league average in 2020 and his average dripped to .190 after hitting .304 in 2017. Inciarte disclosed Tuesday that his mechanics had been off, saying “If you see the past year and a half, I was hitting a lot of balls to the right side and in the years that I had success, I was always hitting the ball to the opposite side and the middle of the field and low line drives. That’s what kept me playing every day. ... (I’m) just trying to do what I did in the past.” To his credit, Inciarte isn’t allowing himself to think like a backup. “In my head, I’m always going to be a starting player,” he said. “I don’t want to put in my forehead that I’m a backup player, because once you think like that, you’re going to go one step back. ... I think I can still do great things still and I’m here to prove it.” Channeling The Secret is great and while he may ultimately not hold off Pache, it’s clear Inciarte isn’t going to just hand over the center field job to the wunderkind.

4. Praise for Pache

Speaking of the wunderkind, Freeman wasn’t picking sides in the Inciarte-Pache debate, but he laid down some pretty ridiculous praise for Pache’s defensive skillset. It’s become old hat at this point, with everyone forecasting a plethora of Gold Gloves for a 22-year-old that has played exactly 68 innings between the regular season and postseason but considering who Freeman — a Gold Glove winner himself — has seen up close and personal, it’s worth relaying. “Just watching him shag balls in the outfield is just so much fun, because I’ve never seen it before. Obviously, I saw Andruw (Jones) on tapes before I got to the Braves and watching him play center field, he’s the best I’ve ever seen on tape and now I ... I got to watch Andrelton Simmons personally, playing with him and now I get to watch Cristian Pache playing center field. ... It’s going to be fun to watch. He is so impressive. ... He’s a special player that we’re going to watch for a long time.”

5. Braves were already reaping rewards of Chipper Jones’ coaching

Hitting savant Chipper Jones won an MVP, a batting title, earned eight All-Star Game appearances and two Silver Sluggers over a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. As he begins his tenure as a part-time hitting consultant with the Braves, his impact has already been felt. After 2012, in which Freeman had 115 wRC+ with a .259/.340/.456 slash line, the first baseman had a conversation with Jones where Chipper talked about a hitter keeping his hands on the white line of the batter’s box throughout the swing plane. It changed everything. A year later, Freeman’s career took off as he rattled off a 150 wRC+, the first of eight straight seasons in which he hit 32 percent above league average or higher, going from a 1.7 fWAR player to no lower than 4.0 in any season in which he played more than 118 games. That’s the resource Atlanta hitters now have, and one that Freeman couldn’t say enough about. “To have him every single day where you can just walk up to him and talk to him, it’s just going to make every single guy better,” Freeman said. “Veteran guys better and especially the young guys coming up. It can change guys careers. It changed mine after 2012.”

6. Ozzie Albies building on progress against right-handers

“When you’re healthier, everything is easier,” Ozzie Albies said earlier this week, and that appears to also apply to hitting right-handed pitching. Albies’ first hit of the spring came Wednesday with a fourth-inning solo home run against Orioles righty Dillon Tate, building off the success he had against right-handers in his return from the bone contusion in his right wrist that cost Albies nearly a month of playing time in 2020. The All-Star second baseman has a career .753 OPS against righties compared to .950 against left-handers, but last season he flipped that script and torched righties (.860) while he dropped to a .491 OPS vs. southpaws. Considering there are just four lefties among the projected rotations in the NL East rotations — two with the Nationals in Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester and one each with the Mets (David Peterson) and Phillies (Matt Moore) — it’s key component in Albies’ growth as he posted a .778 OPS in the last 162-game season of ‘19 after a .696 in in ‘18.

7. This arm is coming

Years ago, the Braves held a media training session at SunTrust Park for their young pitchers, and so many of those arms present — Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Ian Anderson — have graduated and become fixtures on the MLB roster. Also present was the key arm from the 2016 draft class that has yet to make his debut, but Kyle Muller is bidding to change that in 2021. The left-hander, who is the Braves’ sixth-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, is impressing with a scoreless 1 2/3 vs. Minnesota on Tuesday where, most importantly, he didn’t walk anyone. That’s been the issue for Muller, where he chased a 25.6 strikeout rate in Double-A in 2019 with a 14.5 walk rate and had walked 5.53 per nine over four professional seasons. With the number of arms that could be in the mix in ‘21 given the lack of innings accumulated in ‘20, Muller is lining up to be a strong bet among those who could push their way to the majors. “With that stuff, if he gets it over and can locate, that’s a rough ride,” Snitker said. “It’s just explosive with all his pitches. It’s just throwing enough strikes. You don’t have to be perfect when you have stuff like that. But you’ve got to get it in the area code every now and then.”

8. Michael Harris poised to rise

Michael Harris, the 19-year-old the Braves drafted in the third round of the 2019 draft out of Georgia’s Stockbridge High School, will enter the season as the organization’s 12th-ranked player per MLB Pipeline. Anderson — and likely Pache — losing prospect status in ‘21 will help, but here’s expecting that Harris makes a major climb up the rankings by this time next year. He went 1-for-2 with a single vs. Minnesota, then followed that by grounding out against Orioles on Wednesday. “That’s an impressive-looking ballplayer right there,” Snitker said. “I remember when (Nick) Markakis came back from the alternate site and was raving about him. He’s got that look and carry himself well.” No one is forecasting that Harris will vault past Drew Waters, the No. 2 player in the system and the top position player after Pache, but it’s conceivable to imagine Harris leapfrogging a few of the arms ahead of him if he lives up to the growing hype in his first full minor league season. “I would probably not lose money if I said that he’d be a young big leaguer at some point,” Snitker said.

9. Some love for Sean Kazmar

At 36 and having last played in the majors in 2008 — where he debuted for the Padres with a single off a first-pitch fastball from CC Sabathia — Sean Kazmar’s place on the spring training roster seems more ceremonial than anything at this point for a player that hold nearly ever Gwinnett career record. But Kazmar keeps finding a way to have spring training moments. He hit a two-run home run against the Rays in the Grapefruit League opener, his third straight spring in which he’s homered and in the past three trips to camp is hitting .346 with six extra-base hits. It’s an extreme long shot that he makes it back to the majors, and Snitker has candidly said he’d love to have Kazmar on his coaching staff, but it’s worth going back to a 2017 interview I did with Kazmar about how he approaches his role as a minor-league life and the topic of an MLB return. “Mentally, I’m just coming out every day and trying to leave it out on the field,” he said. “That’s what I’ve done my whole career. I’d be lying to if I said I didn’t think about (a call-up). It’s certainly something that’s on everyone’s mind. ... It’s such a high being up there that I want that feeling again.” No matter how long he sticks in camp, there are few stories better than Kazmar’s one of perseverance.