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BRAVE NEW WORLD
Ben Reiter
February 28, 2011
Few teams groom young players for the majors as well—and as fearlessly—as Atlanta. In a pool of strong Rookie of the Year candidates, one stands out above the rest: first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose big bat might remind you of last year's spring phenom
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February 28, 2011

Brave New World

Few teams groom young players for the majors as well—and as fearlessly—as Atlanta. In a pool of strong Rookie of the Year candidates, one stands out above the rest: first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose big bat might remind you of last year's spring phenom

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There comes a time in most of our lives when we seek to assert our distinctiveness from even those closest to us, to individuate. For Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward, that time is now. Freeman and Heyward met at a high school All-American game in August 2006, and the two became close friends a year later, shortly after the Braves drafted them 64 slots apart. (Heyward was the 14th overall pick, Freeman the 78th.) They differed in many ways. Heyward—Georgian, a first child, African-American—was polished, described by teammates as a 40-year-old in a teenager's body. Freeman—a Southern California native, the youngest of three brothers, Caucasian—was loose, if no less disciplined when it counted. But they both had powerful lefthanded swings, and Freeman and Heyward bonded over much more than that as they marched together, in near lockstep, through Atlanta's minor league system.

They shared apartments and roomed together on the road. They ate together. If one didn't finish the other's sentences, it was only out of courtesy. ("If he starts with something, I kind of know where he's going with it," Freeman says, "but I'm not going to interrupt.") They spent so much time together that coaches and teammates called them Salt and Pepper, which qualifies as creative in a sport in which most nicknames are derived from the following formula: Take the first syllable of a player's last name, add a "y." When their professional careers diverged last year—Heyward made the Braves' Opening Day roster and was the starting rightfielder all season, while Freeman spent most of the season with Triple A Gwinnett—they lived together still, in Heyward's house in Cobb County, a short drive from both Turner Field and Gwinnett's ballpark.

The 6'5", 242-pound Freeman—he's Salt—is about to be reunited on the field with his 6'5", 240-pound shaker-mate. General manager Frank Wren says that among the Braves' decision-makers, "none of us has any doubt that he'll be our Opening Day first baseman." Though they will be teammates once more, Freeman and Heyward would not object if the theme of their inseparability became a thing of the past. During a photo shoot last Friday on a back field at the Braves' spring facility in Disney World, they balked at a photographer's request to put their arms around each other's shoulders, or at least to horse around a little. "We're close, but we're not that close," said Heyward.

"We're friends," Freeman added later, "but we're not that good friends." Neither one of them is inclined to recount tales of domestic high jinks (Heyward will allow that Freeman likes to sleep later and is the messier of the two), and they are not rooming together in Orlando and do not plan to during the season (although Freeman is considering a place a block from Heyward's). "We're grown men, you know?" Freeman says. "We're 21."

That 21 equals adulthood would no doubt come as news to the scores of Americans of that age who at this moment are contemplating which rum-soaked location might host the best spring break. But neither Freeman nor Heyward has any doubt that they have reached the age of maturity, and neither does their organization. "If you put a screen in front of them, and you couldn't tell who was on the other side, the way they talked to you, you'd think these guys are 27- or 28-year-old men," says Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. Assuming Freeman makes the Opening Day lineup, they will be the third- and fourth-youngest regular position players in the majors—only Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro and Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton are younger—and they will become the Braves' first pair of 21-or-under regulars. Those bits of trivia are of no concern to Wren. "When you're talented, I don't think anyone's going to ask for your birth certificate," he says. "The umpires don't card."

Heyward is a five-tool phenom who was regarded as the game's top prospect last spring. He more than lived up to his billing, reaching base in nearly 40% of his plate appearances, hitting 18 home runs and finishing second to Giants catcher Buster Posey in the National League Rookie of the Year voting despite badly spraining his left thumb in May. (Heyward says that his thumb is now pain free, if not fully flexible.) Freeman may not possess Heyward's once-a-decade talent, but he is an elite prospect who hit .319 with 18 home runs and 87 RBIs and was named the 2010 International League Rookie of the Year. He and Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown are likely to be the NL's only rookie regulars when the season begins.

Were Freeman a member of another organization, he might expect to spend April and May back in the minors, as many clubs like to delay the debuts of big-league-ready prospects to arrest the ticking of their service-time clocks and their eligibility for arbitration and free agency. Four of the past eight rookies of the year—Posey, the Marlins' Chris Coghlan, the Rays' Evan Longoria and the Brewers' Ryan Braun—began their lauded rookie seasons in the minors. That is not how the Braves operate. "If you're leaving a young guy in Triple A because of service issues, I don't think you're holding up your end of the bargain with your players and your manager," says Wren.

Since Fred McGriff departed after the 1997 season, 24 men have played at least a dozen games at first base for Atlanta, but the Braves' plan is for Freeman to thrust his cleat into that long-revolving door. Freeman and Heyward are expected to become the young cornerstones of an evolving franchise, one with a new manager (Gonzalez takes over for the retired Bobby Cox, who had been filling out the Braves' lineup cards since 1990) and a new, slugging second baseman (Dan Uggla, who was acquired in a November trade with the Marlins and then given a five-year, $62 million contract extension). And they are expected to help the Braves win a playoff series for the first time since 2001; the most recent fruitless postseason effort was in October, when Atlanta played four one-run games, three of them losses, in the NLDS against the Giants. But Freeman and Heyward won't be alone in that effort.

Old farts and young bucks," is how Peter Moylan, the Braves' sidewinding Aussie reliever, describes his club's roster. Moylan is one of the more colorful figures in the Atlanta clubhouse, literally and figuratively: He has sleeve tattoos covering both arms, and he views the game with a jocular perspective that he perhaps developed when he was 21 and a pro baseball washout, driving around the Australian state of Victoria as a pharmaceutical rep and throwing only on the weekends. (Moylan, now 32, was rediscovered by major league scouts while pitching for Australia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.) His characterization of this year's Braves is as accurate as it is expressive: No team in baseball is likely to be as polarized, agewise, as Atlanta.

A baseball player's peak years tend to come between the ages of 26 and 32, and players in that range make up the majority of the major leagues: According to the projected rosters at mlbdepthcharts.com, the 30 clubs average 14.5 players who will be in their primes on Opening Day. No fewer than 21 Twins fall into that range.

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