Kid glove: Freeman earning props on the grass

32 minutes ago

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell’s Guardians Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

In the middle of a random Spring Training tuneup this year, Triston McKenzie avoided potential trouble when Tyler Freeman made a sliding catch as if he’d manned that position his entire life.

As soon as Freeman’s name was mentioned to McKenzie after his outing, he smiled and interrupted the question to say, “I call him Ken Griffey now.”

Now, McKenzie said this with a bit of a chuckle because of what a comparison this is, but there was some truth behind the statement. It was his way of expressing just how seamlessly Freeman, a shortstop, moved into the outfield and won the everyday center-field job.

The Guardians have tried this in the past. We all remember the Amed Rosario experiment in center field that failed miserably during Spring Training. That wasn’t Rosario’s fault. It was merely an example of how difficult it is to learn a new position on baseball’s most competitive stage. Yet somehow, Freeman has managed to look like someone who played outfield for much longer than … since December.

“I think a lot of it is mentality and mental toughness,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said this spring. “He can handle this.”

Just after Vogt was hired on Nov. 6, he studied his roster and devised a plan for most of his returning big leaguers. He phoned Freeman and floated the idea of trying the outfield, considering the Guardians had Gabriel Arias and Brayan Rocchio competing for the starting shortstop job. Without hesitation, Freeman jumped on board.

“I think having that outlook on it, that type of personality, that type of mental fortitude and of course, the ability to play those positions,” Vogt said. “I think he has what it takes to do it, and he doesn’t get big-eyed. He doesn’t look like he gets sped up. I thought he’s looked great no matter the position we’ve put him in.”

Freeman had his first true test in the outfield on Monday in Seattle. With the bases loaded, a soft fly ball to mid-center set him up for his first crow-hop to the plate. Freeman could hear his teammates screaming “four” as the ball plummeted toward his glove. He stayed one step behind the ball, ran into the catch and fired a one-hop strike to the plate. Thanks to a perfect tag by catcher Bo Naylor, Freeman picked up his first assist.

“It’s just another checkmark off playing in the outfield,” Freeman said. “I needed something like that to happen just to get my confidence even more out there.”

It was critical for the Guardians to find a spot for Freeman. He hadn’t had a chance to show why he was once one of the top prospects in their system. Freeman learned last year that he didn’t need to be the slap-like hitter he was the season prior. When he made that change, he hit three homers in his last 19 games of the 2023 season. He launched his first homer of the year on Monday over the head of Julio Rodríguez.

“It showed late in the season when I got consistent time,” Freeman said. “That’s something I’m not worried about anymore. I know I can do damage with the ball now.”

Maybe if Freeman didn’t handle this transition as well, the Guardians wouldn’t have been as comfortable to outright Myles Straw to Triple-A Columbus. But Freeman earned this chance and easily received the belief of his coaching staff. He has a chance to bring some offensive production to a position that has underperformed the past few seasons.

We don’t need to put Griffey-like pressure on him, but Freeman has shown enough in this small sample size to believe that he can become an above-average center fielder (offensively and defensively) for Cleveland for the foreseeable future.

“He’s looking great,” Vogt said. “Obviously, we know the type of player he’s capable of.”