Infielder/outfielder Cole Freeman has put together two of the most consistent seasons in his first two campaigns in the Nationals organization. Along the way, Freeman has proven his ability to excel as the level of competition intensified.
In his first season out of LSU in 2018, Freeman played in 122 games with low Single-A Hagerstown, slashing .266/.354/.371 with 32 doubles, three triples, three homers, 26 stolen bases and 43 RBIs.
The next season, he was even better.
In 2019 at high Single-A Potomac, Freeman played in 123 games, slashing .311/.394/.404 with 27 doubles, three triples, three homers, 31 stolen bases and 49 RBIs.
This season, the 25-year-old out of Metairie, La., played in the Carolina League All-Star Game, the Arizona Fall League and was a postseason Carolina League All-Star.
The Nats’ 2017 fourth-round draft selection has been named an MiLB.com organizational All-Star in both of his professional seasons. He ended the regular season called up to Double-A Harrisburg to play in the Eastern League postseason.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Freeman said. “All the personal goals that I set out to make and I kind of achieved them, and all the team goals, we were right there. I got the option at the end of the year to go play in my first meaningful games in pro ball (in the Double-A playoffs). That was really, really cool to just kind of get into that atmosphere again, knowing that each game counts. It’s a different kind of pressure when you are in a five-game series.”
Freeman wanted to get off to a good start, which is sometimes difficult when you jump up a level. The consistency he was able to maintain for this campaign mirrored his 2018 work. This was intentional on his part.
“It was a good season. What I liked was I definitely had a good first half,” he said. “I built off that and I had an even better second half. I think that’s what the team wants to see a lot. They can see you can play when your fresh but can you grind it out at the end of the season when the games really matter and everybody is kind of breaking down, can you rise up to the challenge and then stay consistent? I felt like I was able to do that. So, I was definitely happy.”
How difficult is it to post back-to-back seasons of over 120 games? Not to mention his postseason work this season with Harrisburg and 15 games in Arizona? What is the key to staying healthy or battling through injury? It is easy Freeman said, so long as he gets some rest.
“A lot of sleep, honestly, during the season,” Freeman said. “I’m honestly sleeping as much as I possibly can. Stretching has been a big thing with me, especially my legs. I remember in (junior college), I wasn’t that flexible. That was a tougher grind than LSU because everything in JuCo is doubleheaders. I kind of got a taste of that how to handle my body and mainly just staying hydrated. That’s really the biggest thing I’ve noticed. As long as I can keep my legs pretty flexible and I’m staying as hydrated as possible, that’s what will keep me (going).”
This season, Freeman had to battle through a hamstring issue and a bout where he was under the weather, describing how he was careful each time. As happens a lot with baseball players playing every day, Freeman lost 17 lbs. by the end of the season.
“I had one little tweak of my hamstring and I kind of felt it a week and a half before it kind of grabbed on me,” Freeman remembered. “I had to take five, six games off. Besides that, I was able to stay on the field. Even when I got sick, coaches asked me did I want to take the day off. I felt like if I get up to the big leagues, there’s no shot I’m asking for a day off. I have to take the opportunity how to learn how to play when I’m sick. Everything is like a little challenge here and there.”
Then, at the end of the season, Freeman got the call to play for the Surprise Saguaros in the AFL. Freeman was thrilled at the opportunity to match up with the best prospects in all of baseball.
“It was unbelievable,” Freeman said. “I talked to (Nats director of player development) Mark Scialabba about it when I was halfway through it. I thanked him for the opportunity to be around all those guys. It was really cool for me and go out there and put a personality to the face and get to kind of pick their brains.”
With so many players on each team, Freeman did not play every day. His utility role also took some getting used to. Facing top pitchers took some getting used to as well.
“I learned a lot. I learned how to go through the struggle of not playing every day,” Freeman said. “Because obviously you are rotating a lot and then you’re having to go out there and face the best of the best pitching. The pitching was really, really good, but nothing really shocked me, which I was happy with.
“I told my father it’s not like I’m overmatched I’m getting into deep counts because I’m missing pitches I usually don’t miss during the season when you have your timing every single day. That was a learning point. I was able to finish the season, the last four or five games, hitting around .500. I built off of that.”
“I learned from the coaches, different tweaks here and there that you can put in your swing. Different drills. I played all three positions in the outfield and then I played two games at second.”
Freeman got a taste of playing in the outfield for the first time in his baseball life while with the P-Nats after a couple of teammates had to miss time with injuries.
“I had never played outfield in my entire life until the second half (of the season),” Freeman said. “There was one game where we had an outfielder (Jack) Sundberg go down, and the next day, Nick Banks got hit in the hand and we were down an outfielder. (Potomac manager) Tripp (Keister) was kind of looking around (wondering) what he was going to do. I told him, ‘Hey, if you need an outfielder, just throw me out there.’ He said, ‘Have you ever played?’ And I said, ‘No, but I can catch a fly ball.’
“So he threw me out there in right field and after the game he asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about playing center?’ I have thought about it before, but I’ve never done it. I personally don’t care. Whatever you think is going to get me up to the bigs and help the team the best. As long as my name is in that lineup, I will do whatever.”
That is when the Nats came to Freeman and told him they would like him to play outfield a few more times before the season concluded. The organization has done this several times over the years for prospects they believe can take that next step. Former big leaguer Tyler Moore gained experience in the outfield after so much time at first base and that helped his career. The more positions one can play - and play at a high level - will help that prospect’s candidacy for a big league call-up.
“We started a couple of games out there,” Freeman said. “Then (assistant general manager) Doug Harris came in during the second half and told me I’d play a lot out there and get some reps out there. I felt like I did a lot better than I was expecting to do or at least make the transition with certain breaks and stuff, because it is a little bit different then catching a pop up in the infield. I enjoyed it.”
Freeman has the right mindset. He just wants to play. His next step is in Harrisburg.
“I will literally do whatever ... if they want me to play seven days a week in five different positions I am all for it,” he said.
Freeman knows from those handful of Double-A playoff games that the level of competition is ramped up and the strike zone is tighter than what he saw in the Carolina League.
“One of the first things I noticed was the strike zone was significantly smaller,” Freeman said. “I was taking pitches waiting to hear them call a strike and they didn’t say anything. It will probably take me two or three weeks to get used to that, to not swing at pitches that usually I’d have to swing at.
“At least you know what to expect somewhat. Check out the guys and their routine. You are more on your own. You got to kind of come up with your plan that you want to go through more. I’ve been kind of putting a plan in my head of what I think I am going to do.”