With all of the attention -- a Sports Illustrated cover, coronation as the "next" big prospect to arrive, appearances on top prospects lists everywhere -- it wouldn't shock people if Freddie Freeman had a sense of entitlement, a big league attitude. Those people wouldn't know Freeman very well.
"It's very humbling that they're penciling me in, but I still have to prove myself," Freeman said of being named the first baseman for 2011. "I got a little taste of it last year. It just makes you want to work even harder to stay there. You have the chance to get there, you have to make sure you stay there. You have to work twice as hard. I'm just going to soak it all in. The guys are great, they make you feel comfortable and it makes your job a little bit easier."
That month Freeman spent in the big leagues in 2010 was beneficial in more than one way. As much as it serves as a very good carrot at the end of the stick, as Freeman implied, it also opened his eyes to what life in the Majors is all about. And it goes beyond just adjusting to seeing 2-0 changeups or getting a steadier diet of breaking stuff.
"It was a big deal. I think the biggest thing was the off-the-field situations, with the hotels and traveling," Freeman said. "Me getting that month, it really helped me figure out what I'm going to have to do. The stress level will be down.
"You have to deal with so many things off the field and it does factor into your mindset when you're on the field. Knowing a little bit about it, you've got your feet grounded. It's going to help baseball-wise and just focusing on the main part, and that's playing the game."
Freeman's game has been one of hitting for average and spraying line drives all over the field. He brings a career .301 Minor League average to Atlanta this year, topped off with his .319 showing in Triple-A a year ago. He's a hit machine with a lot of doubles (35 in 2010) who doesn't walk a ton, but also rarely strikes out. But while he does have a career .472 slugging percentage (.521 last year), he has not fit the profile of the prototypical first baseman. But just like the spotlight hasn't changed his outlook, the 21-year-old isn't about to change his hitting approach just because there's an expectation of what those at his position should do offensively.
"I pride myself on hitting the gaps," Freeman said. "I like hitting gaps, even though I can't run very fast -- I like to think I can. I'm young, I'm still going to mature, still going to get bigger and stronger as I go on.
"People do want me to hit a lot of home runs, but I like to hit the gaps, make sure I stay through the zone, keep a level swing. If I hit the ball and put some backspin on it, they're going to go when I get older and stronger."
Braves' Top 10 Prospects
1. Julio Teheran, RHP: The Braves may have intended to take it more slowly with Teheran, but the No. 10 overall prospect on MLB.com's Top 50 list (No. 2 among right-handed pitchers) performed his way across three levels. He's got three at least above-average pitches and he can command them all. That combination could mean a spot atop a rotation in the near future. He could start this year as the No. 1 guy in Mississippi at age 20.
2. Freddie Freeman, 1B: The No. 17 overall prospect and No. 2 first baseman will open the season in the Braves' lineup. Those who have worried about his power production shouldn't; there's more to come in that regard. Even if it's not immediate, Freeman should hit for average and bang out plenty of doubles with his smooth left-handed swing, allowing him to be a pretty solid run producer. A good defender to boot, he should be on any 2011 National League Rookie of the Year Award candidate lists.
3. Mike Minor, LHP: He may not have won a job out of Spring Training, but that does little to dampen the future for the No. 21 prospect on the Top 50 (No. 4 on the left-handed pitching list). A 23-year-old lefty who now has a plus fastball and changeup, as well as a pretty good curve, Minor made it up to Atlanta in a year after being drafted out of Vanderbilt. He'll go to Triple-A Gwinnett to get some more experience, but don't be surprised to see him up in the big leagues again soon.
WHEN WILL THEY ARRIVE?
4. Craig Kimbrel, RHP: Rookie closers are all the rage these days, and Kimbrel could be the next in line to compete for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. The 22-year-old clearly has the stuff, with a plus fastball and breaking ball, that has proven to be virtually unhittable. He struck out 14.4 per nine innings over his career in the Minors, and hitters managed just a .148 average against him in Triple-A last year. As long as he continues to show improvement with command (career 5.7 BB/9), giving him the ball in the ninth should be a no-brainer.
5. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP: The Braves got Vizcaino from the Yankees in the December 2009 Javier Vazquez deal, and they were excited about how he was throwing in his first season with the organization. He had earned a promotion up to Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach in June before he was shut down for two months with an elbow problem. He did return and is now healthy, though some are concerned about his durability. When he's fine, Vizcaino has plus stuff and command, particularly his fastball and curve. Still only 20, he'll start the year back in the Carolina League.
6. Randall Delgado, RHP: In a system with some pretty good arms, it was Delgado who topped them all with 162 strikeouts in 2010. Like others on this list, the 21-year-old Panamanian has plus stuff and pretty good command to go with it. He's had some control issues at times, but has shown the ability to adjust along the way. He got a taste of big league camp this spring as a member of the 40-man roster and should take that experience with him to Double-A to start the year.
7. Carlos Perez, LHP: Stop if you've heard this one before. The Braves have yet another young Latino arm causing excitement in the organization. This one is left-handed and still a teenager. Perez impressed in Rookie League Danville and even made two starts in full-season Class A Rome last year. He's projectable and could have three above-average to plus pitches when all is said and done. He'll pitch all year at age 19, beginning back in Rome.
8. Christian Bethancourt, C: After a really solid United States debut in 2009, Bethancourt's full-season debut was a bit of a disappointment. The Panamanian backstop hit .251/.276/.331 with Rome, though he did throw out better than 39 percent of would-be basestealers. Still only 19, he's got all the tools to be a successful all-around catcher; he just needs to apply them more. Even if he has to repeat in Rome, he'll be young for his level.
9. Matt Lipka, SS: The teammate of Dodgers first-round pick Zach Lee, Lipka was a two-sport standout in high school whom the Braves were thrilled to get at No. 35 overall last June. A tremendous athlete, 18-year-old Lipka has plus speed and knows how to use it (21 steals in his debut last summer). He should hit for average and has a pretty good approach at the plate. While some questioned where he'd play defensively, the Braves feel he will stick at shortstop, with the arm and range to excel there. His makeup is off the charts as well, which should allow him to handle a full-season assignment in Rome.
10. Brandon Beachy, RHP: Beachy went from non-drafted free agent in 2008 to the big leagues in 2010. Last season, he was MLB.com's choice for the system's Pitcher of the Year after he topped the system (and all of Minor League Baseball) with a 1.73 ERA. He was fourth in the organization in strikeouts and had an 11.2 K/9 ratio while walking just 2.1 per nine. The 24-year-old will bring his three-pitch mix and his outstanding command to Atlanta full-time as the Braves' No. 5 starter.
Under the Radar
Cory Harrilchak, OF: A 14th-round pick in 2009 out of Elon University, Harrilchak had a solid first full season that began in Rome and ended up one level in Myrtle Beach. Used largely as a No. 2 hitter, the 23-year-old showed some ability to hit for average (.306 in Rome) and use his speed. He's a very good defensive outfielder who plays the game the right way. Harrilchak capped off his season with a strong showing (.333/.432/.520) in the Arizona Fall League, perhaps allowing him to move up to Double-A to start the season.
Cory Rasmus, RHP: Injuries can make a prospect fall off the map completely, even if their last name is a familiar one. Colby's younger brother was a promising pitcher, taken in the supplemental first round of the 2006. But shoulder trouble (and surgery) limited him to just 13 innings from 2006-08, including missing all of the '07 season. He managed to get 51 2/3 innings with Danville in 2009, which led him to a South Atlantic League All-Star season last year and a promotion from Rome to Myrtle Beach. His 3.18 ERA was third lowest in the system and he threw 124 1/3 innings, showing he's completely healthy. He's still just 23 years old.
Hitter of the Year -- Lipka
The Braves' top pick in the 2010 Draft will show he was more than worth it, leading the system in stolen bases and finishing among the leaders in batting average as well.
Pitcher of the Year -- Teheran
The phenom will start in Double-A, pitch his way to Triple-A and might even work in a September callup. Along the way, he'll once again be at or near the top among all Braves pitchers in every statistical category.