PITTSBURGH — The Pirates had an opportunity and David Freese had a need.
Months before the former St. Louis Cardinals’ star signed a contract worth at least $11 million dollars over two years with the Pirates, he was sitting at home late into March — certainly later than he wished.
The Pirates needed a part-time starter at third base as Jung Ho Kang recovered from off-season knee surgery. The role would not be one Freese would be accustomed to. The one-time All-Star would be guaranteed a full-time spot for only a few months. Beyond that, he had a chance to earn some playing time off the bench or perhaps at first base — a position he hadn’t played before.
Freese took the deal, seeing the Pirates as a team that had a chance to win and one that had just enough roster uncertainty that he could see himself carving out a sizable role.
In the ensuing months, pretty much everything that could go right for Freese has fallen his way. His .792 OPS is his highest since 2012. He’s flawlessly moved back and forth the diamond at will, making only seven errors on the season and just two in 252.2 innings in his first significant playing time at first base.
Freese has also been a welcome addition to the clubhouse as a team leader and an experienced player that doesn’t mind taking others under his wing while still working hard to perfect his craft.
It all started with the decision to take on an uncertain role and having the right attitude for that job, according to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
“As a players of quality get older, some players hold onto their self-confidence — that’s individual,” Hurdle said. “A lot of players branch out into self-respect. David has a lot of self-respect for his teammates, and a lot of self-respect for the game. Self-respect speaks about ‘we’. David’s in that mode now. He’s worked through some things. He’s won some things. … I think he’s in a very good place with experience from that standpoint to share that experience with everyone else out there. Self-respect is a much better thing for me than self-confidence.”
“It’s why it worked the first time and why it has a chance to work as we go forward,” agreed general manager Neal Huntington. “It gives us tremendous depth as an organization. He’s a quality right-handed hitter than can play first or third. He proved he wants a chance to win.”
Huntington generally prefers not to discuss extensions during the season, but the fit with Freese and his pending free agency made this deal one that just made too much sense to pass up.
“It came about because it’s a good fit for both sides,” he said. “David has done a terrific job for us on the field. He’s been a leader in the clubhouse. He likes it here and we like him. He’s played well and done some good things for us off the field.”
Having Freese on the books for 2017 and 2018 — not to mention a $6 million club option for 2019 — will provide the Pirates with some insurance against mishap or injury both corner infield spots. While Huntington denied that Kang’s legal situation played into the decision to extend Freese, saying that talks with Freese’s agent preceded that news, it certainly will provide some certainty to an uncertain situation at the hot corner.
It’ll also be a boost to the overall depth of the team. The bench has been one of the strong points of the 2016 team, and instead of starting from scratch, this is a step towards providing some continuity.
“It’s all part of our organizational plan,” Hurdle said. “Neal has really strong vision in what he looks to do with our roster. You look at the players that have been added — just within this season — to multi-year contracts for stability, for continuity and for consistency.”
‘IT’S THE PIRATES’
Freese, of course, could have certainly parlayed his successful season at the plate and newfound position flexibility into a big free-agent payday. That wasn’t what he was most interested in, though. He wanted a place he had a chance to win, and the Pirates provided that.
““It’s the Pirates — it’s a team that can compete to win,” he said. “I think that’s the first thing I thought about when I signed here early on. I was so ecstatic that — especially with the situation I was in — had a realistic shot to win this year and compete in the years to come.”
Freese admitted that he “potentially” left some money on the table by re-signing with the Pirates, but that wasn’t his primary concern.
“My priority was to play for a team that could compete to win and play with a great group,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of money in this game to begin with. This contract helps a little more. Where I play and who I’m around is more important to me. … It’s awesome coming to the yard and learning the game more and more. It’s not just about hitting here. From Clint all the way down, they teach the game. I haven’t necessarily felt that the last few years.
“I feel valued here. I feel like these guys want me here. That’s huge. I’ve heard it before, but there’s something different about the way Neal, Clint and all the guys went about bringing me back. They want me here. I know that. It’s a good feeling.”
Hearing a respected veteran say things like that — and back it up by his contract negotiations — was an eye-opener for Huntington.
“That was the biggest thing that drew my attention,” he said. “As his agent talked about why he wanted to stay here — it was a chance to win. We believe in where we are and where we’re headed, but to get a player like David Freese to reinforce that, it shows that we are on the right track. There may be some bumps in the road, but our expectation is to fulfill that first wish of why he wanted to stay here.”
For Hurdle, it was an affirmation of the things and values that he’s hoped to bring to the manager’s office while turning the fate of the franchise around.
“It’s a reflection upon our integrity, character and transparency,” he said. “We don’t have an agenda. We communicate with people. We tell them the truth. David was shared exactly the outline for [his success] walking in the door. Then we just built the relationship.”
The Pirates can be as analytically slanted as any other organization and it’s something that Hurdle has bought into in his time in Pittsburgh. But he was quick to note how the things like relationships and intangibles can make a difference when it comes to events like this.
“It goes to show you, with those tenets — integrity, character and transparency — in place, your word means something,” he said. “A handshake is real. When you talk to people, you look them in the eyes. Those things still have lasting value. They’re still impactful.”
BREAKING THE MOLD
Extending a bench player into what will potentially be his age 35 season isn’t a usual part of Huntington’s playbook. I asked him what gave him confidence that this will be a good deal in year two and three.
“[It’s] the role he’s in, the low-maintenance swing, the hard work that he’s shown and the defensive abilities,” Huntington said. “It would probably be a little bit different if we were expecting him to play 155 games a year for the next two to three years. In this role, it should allow his legs to stay strong and allow the skills he brings to the table to play well off the bench.”
Then of course, there’s the hurdle of having the cash to pull such a deal off. It’s no coincidence that a deal that’s been under discussion since the spring came to fruition shortly after Huntington shed three high-salary players at the trade deadline.
“As we talked at the deadline about flexibility, it may go into one player, it may go into multiple players, it may go to a couple years of payroll flexibility,” Huntington said. “This is a direct example of having some breathing room to be able to get creative and stretch beyond where we may normally be boxed in when something like this happens.”