TEMPE, Ariz. — The Angels hope for great things from David Freese, their new third baseman. What they cannot hope for are the best days of Freese’s baseball life.
He already had them.
In 2011, he saved the St. Louis Cardinals from extinction in Game 6 of the World Series, tying the score in the ninth inning with a two-out, two-run triple, then winning the game with an 11th-inning home run. In Game 7, he tied the score with a two-run double, and the Cardinals never again trailed.
St. Louis threw a parade for its Cardinals, but the outpouring of elation was most heartfelt toward Freese. He was one of the city’s own. He grew up there, still lived there. His teammates dispersed to hometowns far and wide, but he basked in civic affection all winter.
“I didn’t pay for too many meals,” he said.
He is smiling at the memory. He is thousands of miles from home, and from the Florida training camp of his hometown team. He occupies the locker adjacent to Albert Pujols, who preceded Freese in making the transition from beloved star in St. Louis to newcomer in Anaheim.
“Just get used to it, and acclimated to the people. That’s it,” Pujols said. “Everything else is the same. The game is the same. That’s the most important thing. Nothing changes in the game.”
Freese, 30, insists he is well on his way. He was aware a trade might be in the offing and hoped the Cardinals would send him somewhere else he could win.
“I’m blessed to be an Angel,” he said.
Yet there is one St. Louis sting that lingers, one comment that bites at Freese. On the day the trade was announced, Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak suggested that Freese might have been burdened by playing in his hometown.
“Growing up in St. Louis, this could not have been the easiest place to play,” Mozeliak told reporters. “I do think he may be looking forward to a fresh start. This was not an easy year for him.”
Freese hit .262 with nine home runs and a .721 OPS last year, down from .293 with 20 homers and an .839 OPS in 2012.
If there was any credence to the notion that playing at home took a toll on him, Freese said, then his 2012 statistics should have reflected that. He was coming off a winter in which everyone in town wanted a piece of him, and he responded with the best season of his career.
“There’s always demands on your time,” he said. “I thought I did a pretty good job of controlling that. All this stuff is coming up because I had a rough year.
“You talk about pressure and this and that. The pressure was at an all-time high in 2012, and I did pretty well that year.”
The Angels would be thrilled with the Freese of 2012, but they would be perfectly happy with the Freese of 2013.
The Angels’ third basemen hit eight home runs last season, the lowest total for any AL team. They have not had more than 10 home runs from a third baseman since 2003, when Troy Glaus played there. The power potential of Dallas McPherson and Brandon Wood never materialized, and neither Chone Figgins nor Alberto Callaspo had power in his game.
Even in a down year, Freese had a .340 on-base percentage last season. The only Angels regulars to do that: outfielder Mike Trout and catcher Chris Iannetta.
“David Freese has never been a gaudy, 30-home-run third baseman,” Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. “That’s not who he is. We understand what we’re getting.”
Third base is a difficult position to fill these days, but Dipoto said he did not think twice about the willingness of the well-run Cardinals to trade a hometown star. The St. Louis player development system is extraordinarily effective, and the Cardinals were ready to move Matt Carpenter from second base to third to make room for rookie Kolten Wong.
“The Cardinals are in a pretty unique position of depth, like the Braves in the ‘90s,” Dipoto said. “That made Freese an expendable piece for them. Any time a player is traded, it doesn’t mean it’s a pending disaster for the other team.”
Freese said he is grateful to the Cardinals for taking a chance on him. He was a ninth-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres toiling at Class A Lake Elsinore in 2007, when the Cardinals acquired him for Jim Edmonds.
His lasting memory will not be that his hometown team traded him away.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “The probability was greater that I would never be a Cardinal. That’s the way I look at it, whether it was one day or four or five years. Not only that, but to win a world championship, you can’t ask for anything more than that.”