I feel like this was inevitable. At some point this winter, the Yankees would be connected to David Freese. It made too much sense. The Cardinals don’t need him anymore with second baseman Kolten Wong ready (Matt Carpenter would slide back to third) and the Bombers need some help at the hot corner. Add in the big-ish name, past postseason success, and familiarity with a baseball-crazy market and pennant races and all that, and it’s a match made in rumor heaven.
The Yankees have long had their eyes on Freese — they reportedly agreed to acquire him from the Padres for Kei Igawa back in 2007, but George Steinbrenner backed out because he didn’t want to eat any of Igawa’s contract — and sure enough, Mark Feinsand reported yesterday two sides have been talking trade. Later in the day we found out a deal is unlikely because they don’t match up well, or, in other words, the Cardinals don’t have much interest in what New York has to offer. That doesn’t mean a trade is off the table completely though, the offseason is still young and these two clubs have months to find common ground. Does he fit the Yankees’ needs though? Let’s take a look, starting with the negatives.
- Freese’s power was absent in 2013. He slugged only nine homers with a .119 ISO in 521 plate appearances, down from the almost perfectly league average .150 ISO he posted from 2009-2012. Freese saw his HR/FB rate drop from 18.8% in 2011-2012 to 10.5% this year.
- His batted ball profile did not change (no sudden spike in ground balls, for example) and his .320 BABIP this past summer was actually a career-low by more than 30 points. He’s a high-BABIP hitter who managed a career-worst .262/.340/.381 (106 wRC+) in 2013.
- Freese is pretty bad defensively regardless of whether you want to use the eye test or the various fielding stats: -14 DRS, -13.1 UZR, -12.5 FRAA, and -19 Total Zone in his career. If you watched the postseason at all, you saw how positively statuesque he is at third.
- Freese won’t give you anything on the bases. He’s gone 6-for-12 in stolen base attempts in his 466-game big league career and he’s taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) just 34% of the time, below the 40% league average.
- The injury history is rather long. Freese missed time with back trouble this season (started the year on the DL) and he’s had three surgeries since breaking into the show: left heel debridement (2009), right ankle tendon reconstruction (2010), and a left hand fracture (2011). He’s also had a lot of day-to-day stuff over the years (mostly hamstring and wrist).
- I usually try to steer clear of off-the-field stuff here, but Freese has three alcohol-related arrests in his recent past and that seems like something worth mentioning. He was arrested for DUI in 2002 and again 2009, and was also arrested for public intoxication and resisting arrest in 2007. The second DUI was a violation of his probation stemming from the 2007 arrest.
- Freese didn’t hit this past season but he has hit every other year of his career, putting up a .296/.363/.446 (125 wRC+) line from 2009-2012 and .293/.372/.467 (133 wRC+) with 20 homers in 567 plate appearances in 2012 alone. Both his walk (career 8.6%) and strikeout (21.0%) rates are right in line with the league averages.
- As a right-handed batter, he does most of his damage against lefties (career 134 wRC+) but can still hold his own against righties (114 wRC+). Even this past season, the worst of his career, he managed a tolerable 98 wRC+ against righties. He doesn’t need a platoon partner.
- We have to mention the postseason, right? Freese is a career .289/.357/.518 (141 wRC+) hitter with seven homers in 185 plate appearances across 41 postseason games, but I have to point out those numbers were built almost entirely during that monster 2011 run (245 wRC+). He was okay in 2012 (106 wRC+) and downright awful in 2013 (50 wRC+).
- Matt Swartz projects Freese to earn $4.4M through arbitration next season — for some reason I thought it was over $7M — and he will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2015 as well. He won’t be eligible for free agency until the 2015-2016 offseason.
Freese isn’t a bat first player, he’s a bat only player. He doesn’t help on defense and you can’t count on him to play 140+ games either — he’s only done that once in his career (144 in 2012) — so if he doesn’t hit, he’s a replacement level player (like he was this summer). There’s a chance his subpar 2013 season at the plate has to do with his back problem, which means he could rebound next year if he’s healthy or continue to get worse since back injuries have a way of lingering forever. I think it’s very clear Freese’s reputation, which was boosted by 2011 postseason heroics, far exceeds his actual worth right now.
Now, that said, the third base market is a wasteland. The best available free agent is Juan Uribe, who was very good this past season but a release candidate in both 2011 and 2012. The alternatives are Michael Young and Mark Reynolds. So yeah, the free agent market doesn’t offer much help. With the Padres reportedly hanging onto Chase Headley and Pablo Sandoval only kinda sorta on the market, Freese figures to be the best third baseman on the trade block this winter barring something surprising. He’s the best of an underwhelming lot of players.
The Yankees don’t have much to offer the Cardinals in the trade, hence St. Louis’ reluctance to pull the trigger. There is a chance the Cardinals will non-tender Freese prior to the December 2nd deadline rather than risk paying him $4.4M to be a bench player in 2014, at which point New York could simply sign him as a free agent. Maybe this is a repeat of the Russell Martin situation — the Yankees offered Frankie Cervelli to the Dodgers for Martin, who balked and eventually non-tendered their backstop days later. Maybe they low-balled St. Louis and are content with waiting to see if he gets cut loose next month (when they might have a better handle on the Alex Rodriguez’s situation) before upping their offer. Freese would help the Yankees but only at the right price. I don’t think he’s someone they should go all out to acquire regardless of their third base needs and the lack of alternatives.