Freel won't take center field lightly
Outfielder not about to play tentatively to prevent injuries
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Now the Reds' regular center fielder, Ryan Freel would like to say he could harness his frenetic, take no prisoners approach that sometimes puts him at risk for injury.But Freel also knows himself all too well. "I'm not going to change, as far as being less aggressive. Deep down, I know it ain't going to happen," Freel said on Wednesday. "I've already talked to myself plenty of times and tried to go that route [of playing it safe]. When it comes down to crunch time, it doesn't matter. All of that flies out the window." Jerry Narron knows Freel pretty well, too. While he wouldn't ever want to see Freel lose a game of chicken with the outfield wall, the Reds manager has no plans to ask his center fielder to dial it down. "Most of the time in this game, we're trying to get guys to play harder, not softer," Narron said. "I really believe you play the game all out and whatever happens, happens. You start trying to protect yourself from getting hurt, that's when you get hurt." Trying hard to stay healthy for Opening Day, Freel learned as much earlier this month in a game against the Yankees. He suffered a minor injury fielding an Alex Rodriguez line drive hit to center field. "I was right there and could have dove and caught that ball," Freel said. "Then I was thinking, 'It's spring, don't do something stupid.' Sure enough, I kind of felt something in my hip flexor. I was thinking, 'If I would have freaking dove for that ball, it wouldn't have happened.'" On Monday, Narron announced that Ken Griffey Jr. would move from center field to right field once he returns from a broken left hand. Griffey has yet to see action in any exhibition games this spring. "Ryan Freel has a great opportunity this year to play," Narron said before Wednesday's game against the Twins. "Hopefully, he'll take advantage. I love seeing him in the lineup every day in the leadoff spot and running it down in the outfield." Also nursing a sore right hamstring, Freel played Wednesday for the first time since March 12. The injury wasn't considered serious and Freel said he could have played through if it were the regular season. The 31-year-old went 0-for-2 with a walk and a run scored in a 5-3 loss to the Twins, and he also misjudged a Luis Castillo fly in the second inning, running in as the ball sailed over his head. It went for an RBI triple to the wall. The decision to move Griffey wasn't unexpected, but it remains significant. A center fielder his whole career, he is a 10-time Gold Glove winner and 12-time All-Star. Freel came into camp likely to play right field most of the time. But center field always loomed as a possibility. "Until it's set or written or whatever, I won't believe anything," Freel said. "It's good, I'm happy and I'm excited. I've worked my whole life to get to where I'm at. It's a dream come true. Never in a billion years did I think I'd be playing center field, starting, especially with a guy like Ken Griffey Jr. over here. This guy has done so much for the game and has been an unbelievable center fielder -- and still is."
A utility player able to man five different positions, Freel played 44 of his 132 games in center field last season while batting .271 with a team-high 37 steals. The year ended abruptly on Sept. 19 at Houston when he suffered a fractured left thumb trying to make a diving play -- in center field.Since coming to Cincinnati as a Minor League free agent before the 2003 season, Freel has spent most of his big-league career as a role player or "super-sub." "It's always been, 'He's going to play, but where's he going to play?'" said Freel, who has stolen 36 or more bases each of the past three seasons. "I'd come into spring and every position had that spot filled by somebody that's a prospect or a big name." Never outwardly discouraged, Freel took pride in his versatility. "It got me to the big leagues. It helped me stay here in the big leagues," Freel said. "It's given me an opportunity to play more." By last season, his speed and aggressive style made him a fixture in the leadoff spot. Earlier this spring, Narron referred to Freel as "a starter, but he doesn't always start in the same spot." That was, until now. Instead of hoping for a spot to open up, Freel is in more control of his own destiny. If he remains healthy and his production doesn't decline from the toll his puts on his body, he'll likely play. For a guy who has never met a warning track, wall or railing that he didn't try diving into, Freel fully understands what he's about to demand of himself. "I always said if I got a job like that, playing center field, it's going to be a lot different," Freel said. "It's going to be tough to pace yourself in a position like that. I try to catch everything out there, no matter what. There's a chance in a lot of games to do something stupid. I know the aggressiveness will still be there. The mentality to catch everything will still be there."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.