When Chipper Jones retired at the end of last season, the Atlanta Braves were not only left without a third baseman but without a face for its franchise.
The good news is the heir apparent to the team of the south is already on the roster. It’s not six-time All-Star Brian McCann, or Atlanta native Jason Heyward, and no it’s not folk hero El Oso Blanco.
No the jersey that will be adorned by little tykes at Ted Turner for the next decade will be Freddie Freeman’s No. 5.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound first baseman is in the midst of a breakout season thus far. Entering Wednesday night’s game against the Mets Freeman was hitting .320 for the year with seven homeruns and a team-high 48 runs driven in.
Including Monday night’s walk-off homerun, Freeman has three walk-off hits this season. He’s not just an offensive player either, on any given night you can see the California native making full split stretches at first base that make 12-year female gymnasts squeamish.
When Jones announced his retirement, and even before that, it was McCann who seemed destined to fill the role of the south’s most popular player not named Kenny Powers. The Athens, Ga. native debuted in 2005 as the sidekick to his good friend and hometown hero Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy homered in his first Major League game, and as an Atlanta native he quickly became the fan favorite.
McCann, who actually debuted before Francouer in June of ’05, spent most the season as John Smoltz’s valet catcher. While Francouer had the hype, McCann had the steady production. He was named an All-Star in his first six full big-league seasons. Frenchy was demoted to AA for three games in 2008, only to be traded to the Mets a season later.
The catcher is the most accomplished hitter in the Braves lineup, even after an injury-fueled sub-par 2012 season, but with a contract that expires after the season it would appear his days as a Brave are numbered. Despite him being fully healthy and off to a good start this year, with the emergence of Evan Gattis it doesn’t make much sense for Atlanta to try and match the money an American League team will likely offer McCann in the off-season so he can both catch and DH.
The other candidate who seemed more likely to replace Jones as the poster boy was Heyward. Like Francouer, the outfielder burst onto the scene with an iconic homerun in his first-career at-bat. Yet like Francouer again, Heyward’s production has tailed off. This season he’s hitting just .214 with 13 RBI. Though to be fair he does seem to be showing signs of life now that there’s no longer an appendix rotting inside him.
Still his struggles at the plate go deeper than a slow start this season, as he struck out 152 times last season as he hit .269 (which was an improvement on his .227 average in 2011).
Like when Francouer and McCann broke into the big leagues, Heyward and Freeman have traveled through the Braves’ organization together. Once again it was the local product Heyward, who received much of the attention while Freeman came along slower.
Now in 2013 it appears Freeman, like McCann, is undoubtedly the best half of the duo. That’s not a dig at Heyward, who is still far from a finished product as a Major League player, but rather a testament to what Freeman is developing into.
In addition to being everything the Braves want Freeman to be on the field, he’s also got the poster boy image away from the ballpark. In the dugout when teammates hit homers, rather than a high-five Freeman dishes out hugs to his teammates. He wears sleeves year round after losing his mother to melanoma when he was 10. What’s not to like about this guy?
He certainly deserves to make his first All-Star appearance after his start to this season, and will play a prominent role in the franchise’s future in the coming seasons.
So get your Freeman jersey now, because No. 5 is the new 10 in Atlanta.