Freiman offers Astros big possibilities
Towering Rule 5 Draft pick provides intriguing power potential
BRADENTON, Fla. -- This is a tall tale: Nate Freiman is 6 feet 8. And yes, of course, his height distinguishes him among the hoard of hopefuls who have overrun the Astros' Spring Training complex in Kissimmee. Freiman goes a strong 80 inches without cleats, heels or insert soles, and none of the other 55 players wearing the re-designed and quite distinctive uniforms of the newest entry in the American League has quite the vertical frame.
For that matter, he'd likely stand head and shoulders -- well, at least half a head -- over any set of campers in Florida or Arizona. Baseball rosters rarely include a man of such stature, particularly a position player. Not since Frank Howard threatened walls, light standards, inattentive fans in upper decks and cars in distant parking lots throughout each league has the game seen a man of comparable height except on the mound.
Retired sluggers Richie Sexson and Tony Clark were 6-7 -- and maybe taller when they stood in Wrigley or Fenway. The Big Unit (6-11 -- and that wasn't his record) and Mets wannabe Eric Hillman (6-10 -- that could have been his), who pitched in the early '90s, cast long shadows, but from the mound. Freiman's shadow starts at first base, and a more menacing shadow follows him to the batter's box.
Not only has he hit his weight (250 pounds) and more (.294) in his professional career, he almost has hit his height (in inches) in home runs -- 71 in four Minor League seasons. Intriguing, isn't he?
So Freiman is a standout, even when he's sitting down. He's separated from the others in his field by so much more, though. He is Jewish in the mostly Gentile world of baseball. His name is pronounced Fry-man -- as in Woodie Fryman, the old Expos pitcher. He played for the Israeli team in the World Baseball Classic qualifying round -- he hit four home runs in 12 days. He is a Rule 5 Draft pick, taken off the Padres' roster in December. He's a Dukie, a blue-blooded Blue Devil who graduated from the Durham basketball institution in 2009 -- never having taken orders from Coach K, despite his frame.
And he caddies, too. He may be the only 6-8 man who ever has (But the Elias Sport Bureau doesn't consider height an official statistic).
Freiman has been known to lug the clubs for one Amanda Blumenhurst of the LPGA tour, who is soon to be identified in all necessary legal documents as Amanda Freiman. She and the tall one were wed in the offseason. Amanda will remain a Blumenhurst on the tour -- though someday, when she no longer is the primary breadwinner, she may become more widely known as Nate Freiman's wife.
Nate is quite comfortable with that potential scenario because it will mean he will have made his mark in his chosen profession. That, or the major in history and minor in math from Duke, will have netted him well-compensated employment in the real world. He'd prefer baseball, though.
A career in the game would be one more distinction, one he covets. His superiors say he could become one of the 750 players on big league rosters. His power distinguishes him, and he knows his way around first base. He's smooth.
"Very athletic," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "He might surprise you, because he moves so well. He knows what to do, and he can do it."
Freiman works at his agility. Rope jumping helps. He uses a long rope.
And, goodness knows, he's a good target. Size does matter.
Freiman politely remains in the, "We'll see what happens at the end of the spring," mode that most rookies find comfortable. He assumes nothing, presumes less. He is 26, and the door that leads to the big leagues isn't open quite as wide as it was when he signed with the Padres in 2009. But power is an increasingly rare commodity in the game, and the left-field wall in Houston is close enough that he might reach it with his long arm extended and a bat in his hand.
Moreover, Freiman has a gift rare at any level of baseball. He drives in runs -- 111 with the Padres' most competitive Class A team in 2011, and 105 with their Double-A San Antonio affiliate last year. He has three RBIs and seven total bases in 18 at-bats in Spring Training games.
"He hits the ball to all fields," Porter said. "We like that about him. And he has a nice, short stroke for a big man."
Freiman makes contact -- his strikeout total reached 100 only once -- and reaches base regularly while batting in the .290s. He hardly seems overwhelmed by the challenges.
All that, and the Astros may have room for him on their roster. Freiman must remain on their big league roster or disabled list or be placed on waivers and offered back to the Padres for $25,000. But if the Astros are as well stocked with young talent as they think they are, retaining Freiman may be challenging.
Porter acknowledged on Sunday that the club might not have selected Freiman if its move to the American League wasn't in the offing. The designated-hitter role was a factor. The roster has more than its share of first basemen/DH types -- with Chris Carter, Brett Wallace and veteran slugger Carlos Pena. But Carter is playing left field in exhibition games, Wallace has taken ground balls at third, and the ultra-young Astros have little set in stone.
A team with modest expectations can afford a player with genuine home-run potential more opportunity than even the improved, but still run-hungry Padres.
Freiman is uncertain what his chances of making the jump from Double-A to the big leagues would have been had he remained with the Padres. He thanks them for the opportunity they afforded him. But he likes his chances with the Astros, and he's waiting for the end of Spring Training.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.