MORE TIME ON THE PINE TAR
SARASOTA Everyone around Ryan Freel in the clubhouse is ready to break camp, but the Reds utilityman feels like he just got here. "I know they hate to hear it, but I always tell the guys, 'I wish we had one more week,' " said Freel. "It's been fast, it's been the quickest spring training I've ever been involved with."
Not in a good way, of course. While the Reds played their 28th spring training game Tuesday night, losing 12-11 to the Twins, Freel has appeared in only nine. He had a hit in each of those games until Tuesday, when he walked in a pinch-hitting appearance, and is batting .379.
Recovery time from offseason knee surgery kept him out of full-speed work early in camp, and he didn't play in a game until March 7. Since then, a nagging quadriceps strain has held him back a bit. The result has been a frustrating stretch for the hyperkinetic Freel, who just isn't used to sitting around and watching everyone else work.
At least he's healthy.
"My knee's 100 percent," Freel said. "With the quad thing, I ran 100 percent before I played (Monday). I think it's more of a mental thing, because we're coming into the season and I don't want to take any chances and blow it all right before the season. That would just be devastating. I don't want to start the season out on the DL."
Rest assured, the Reds don't want that either. Though last year's 76-win campaign was a disappointment, the damage probably would have been worse if not for the job Freel did. Projected as the 25th man coming out of spring training last year, Freel ended up accumulating 592 plate appearances in 143 games. Along the way, he became the first big-leaguer since Tony Phillips in 1992 to make at least 10 starts in five different defensive positions - second base, third base and all three outfield spots.
He made those starts out of necessity, as the Reds never really found a third baseman and Ken Griffey Jr. and Austin Kearns spent significant time on the disabled list. But Freel also produced, hitting .277, scoring 74 runs and stealing 37 bases.
Alas, Freel remains a role player. His only chance for a starting job would have come if the Reds had decided to non-tender second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez, but that didn't happen. It gives the Reds more depth, but somebody has to sit out, and more often than not, it appears that somebody will be Freel.
"That's my role," Freel said. "I'd like to be able to try to fit myself in there one way or the other as much as possible, but I'm realistic. Unless something happens - hopefully, no injuries, but that would be my only way of playing (regularly), it seems like." In a way, that reality has only made his sporadic spring training play more difficult for Freel to swallow. With the frequent substitutions and lineup tinkering common during March, he would have been in line for all sorts of at-bats and defensive assignments.
Knowing his regular-season playing time figures to be more limited this year, Freel had been looking forward to getting a full dose of action this spring, but injuries have curtailed that plan.
Freel can only hope his absence hasn't led the Reds to forget about him. It's easy to overlook the fact that last year was the first in Freel's 10 professional seasons he spent entirely in the majors, so he's not used to getting comfortable.
As well as he played, though, making the adjustment back to part-time duty isn't all that easy. "You can't help as a player but be frustrated, because you just know that you can help this team win," said Freel. "But the people that you have on this team, it's going to be hard. I know (manager Dave) Miley is going to try to get me in the game as much as he can, he's already said that. It's just, how much is he going to be able to ?"
All Freel can do for an answer to that question is his least favorite thing: wait.
Special to Canadian Baseball News 30 March 2005