Veteran third baseman appreciates the strides Pittsburgh baseball has taken
By Richard Justice
BRADENTON, Fla. -- David Freese had a front row seat when things began to change for the Pittsburgh Pirates. To have seen what it was like only a few years ago makes him appreciate what baseball in Pittsburgh has become even more.
This week, when he was offered a chance to join the ride, he grabbed it.
"It's a different sound here now," Freese said on Saturday morning. "This place is roaring. How can you not want to be part of that?"
He signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Pirates, ending a dive into free agency's uncertain waters. Freese will be the starting third baseman for the Pirates until Jung Ho Kang recovers from left knee surgery.
After that, Freese will work into a utility role, getting at-bats at both third base and first base, along with pinch-hitting duty -- and whatever else Pirates manager Clint Hurdle comes up with.
This surely isn't the career arc Freese figured on. Four years ago, he had trouble imagining playing for a team other than the Cardinals. He was the hometown guy who'd made it -- the 2011 World Series Most Valuable Player and a member of the '12 National League All-Star team. As marriages go, it was about as perfect as professional sports can offer.
Storybook endings are in short supply, however. Freese learned this lesson firsthand, when the Cardinals traded him to the Angels after the 2013 season. Now, two seasons later, at 32, he has landed back in the NL Central with a Pirates team that has become one of baseball's model franchises -- after three straight postseason appearances and 98 victories in 2015.
"To see where this organization has come from the last few years, that's special," Freese said. "I know they have unfinished business. I've had that a few times. I know what that feels like."
Now, about free agency. Freese checked out the market for third basemen and was prepared to be patient. He didn't think his patience would extend into the middle of Spring Training.
"You're in the opportunity you're presented with," Freese said. "If you can play, you're going to find a job. You can take Minor League deals and go to work. But you view yourself a certain way. The game's definitely getting younger. I get it. I understand they're pushing prospects. High schoolers are getting pushed.
"What can you do? You have to deal with it. You have to be good enough to push guys out of a position if teams want you. You find a situation that fits."
His production has remained mostly consistent. In seven Major League seasons, Freese has a .761 OPS. That number was .743 with the Angels in 2015, a season in which he had 27 doubles and 14 homers.
Freese missed 41 games after a Mike Pelfrey pitch broke his right index finger in late July. He returned Sept. 1 and hit .308 down the stretch. He had hoped to re-sign with the Angels, but when they traded for Yunel Escobar, that was that.
"It was just about unfinished business," Freese said. "I'm huge on that. We had two good runs. It didn't work out."
The veteran still makes his offseason home in St. Louis, where he remains popular as the guy who helped deliver the Cardinals' most recent World Series championship.
He joined former Cardinals teammates Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter in Jupiter, Fla., for workouts in January. As rosters began to solidify, Freese accepted the possibility he might not be signed until the season began.
He believes the experience may end up being good for him.
"You're just always trying to progress as a man," Freese said. "Sometimes, I make it hard on myself. I'm trying to control stuff you can't control. God said, 'Here you go, we'll give you this.' It was a tough situation to handle, the waiting. It challenges your heart. You're sitting around, while guys are out playing. It makes you appreciate the game a lot more."
Holliday began his career playing for Hurdle with the Rockies. He has been effusive in his praise of Freese's new manager. As for everything else -- his playing time, his new surroundings -- Freese is just happy to be back in a Major League uniform.
"When I walked into Bradenton and went to the Minor League complex and worked out, I knew this was the right fit," said Freese. "I was excited. I'm ready. I feel good, just like everybody else who comes into Spring Training. I had a real good winter in a lot of ways -- just as a person and getting ready as a ballplayer. These guys are going to push me. I'm going to push them. That's the way they go about it."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.