Cardinals postseason hero David Freese: ‘I was probably going to be a Red Sox’
|10.15.12 at 2:06 am ET|
A year ago, the story of David Freese seemed almost impossible to believe. No longer.
The Cardinals third baseman anchored the run of his hometown Cardinals to an improbable World Series in 2011, earning honors as both the NLCS and World Series MVP. Twelve months later, he is continuing his remarkable exploits on baseball’s brightest stage.
Freese jumpstarted the Cardinals’ 6-4 victory over the Giants in Game 1 of the NLCS on Sunday night, blasting a two-run homer off Madison Bumgarner to give St. Louis a lead it never relinquished. The 1-for-4 game gave Freese a .360/.414/.600/1.014 line with a homer, three doubles and four runs batted in through seven postseason games this year. In his two postseasons, he is now hitting .386/.449/.739/1.188 with six homers and 25 RBI in 25 games.
The whole thing would have been unimaginable back when he was ignored twice out of the University of South Alabama in the draft. But he took a step forward as a fifth-year senior at the University of South Alabama, and that’s where he nearly found his way into the Red Sox organization.
“Not too many people know that,” Freese acknowledged sheepishly this year.
In 2006, the draft rules permitted fifth-year seniors to sign as free agents once their baseball seasons concluded, so long as the team’s season was done prior to the MLB draft. And so, as the South Alabama season wound down, Freese — who had a huge year as a fifth-year senior, hitting .414/.503/.661/1.165 with 12 homers — was talking to teams about the possibility of signing in the days leading up to the draft.
The Sox were perhaps the most aggressive of those teams. Area scout Danny Watkins was convinced that, even though Freese was old for his competition, his bat was legitimate.
“David was a hard-nosed player who was willing to sacrifice his body at third base and had a strong throwing arm. But, his defensive skills were just fringy average,” Watkins recalled in an email. “However, it was the consensus (within our department) that he had a better than fair chance of hitting (with some power) major league pitching.”
But a somewhat unexpected turn of events took place. South Alabama — thanks in part to a remarkable performance by pitcher P.J. Walters, whom Freese recalled beating Florida State in an outing of perhaps 150 pitches to bump up the team’s RPI — received an at-large bid to the College World Series Regional tournament. South Alabama’s season was prolonged beyond the start of the draft. And so, Freese could not sign with a team before the draft.
“If we didn’t make the regional, I was probably going to be a Red Sox before the draft,” said Freese. “I was close. Obviously, I’m glad the way things worked out.”
The way things worked out took Freese in anything but a straight line. He was taken by the Padres in the ninth round of the 2006 draft, a spot that reflected the questions about his defensive abilities, and as a senior without any negotiating leverage, he signed for just $6,000 — a fraction of what he would have gotten from the Sox had he been eligible to sign before the draft. He exceeded defensive expectations as he made his way through the minors, and Freese consistently mashed to secure prospect status beyond what one would typically associate with a player who went undrafted as a junior.
The Cardinals acquired Freese from the Padres after the 2007 season in exchange for Jim Edmonds, and the 29-year-old has now emerged as a star for the team he rooted for as a kid. This year, he built upon his incredible postseason performance of 2011 by earning an All-Star spot while hitting .293/.372/.467/.839 with 20 homers in 144 games.
Obviously, such a player would have become a considerable asset for the Sox had he signed with them. Instead, the team is left to appreciate his emergence from afar.
“It didn’t surprise anyone that he saved his best performances (in 2011 post season) for the biggest moments,” Watkins wrote. “Looking back, it was his personality that was one of the biggest ‘pluses’ in my mind. I was very impressed with him and felt like he was a person that would endure any hardship in his pursuit of playing MLB.”