18. How close is Freddie Freeman?

The Braves have to gauge how long it might be before Freddie Freeman takes over at first base.

Of all the decisions the Braves have to make this offseason, perhaps the most difficult will be to judge the potential timetable of the debuts of two top prospects.

Most believe Jason Heyward is closer to the big leagues than Freddie Freeman, and that makes the call on Heyward a bit easier. Heyward could possibly be ready sometime early in the 2010 season, while Freeman will probably take a bit longer to develop in the minor leagues.

So how close is this big left-handed hitter from California? He just turned 20 years old in early September, and he's now in the Arizona Fall League.

A wrist injury played havoc with Freeman all season, and has still been an issue in the AFL. So Freeman's numbers were not as impressive in 2009 as they were in 2008, but there's still little doubt about how highly-regarded the Braves view Freeman's future.

Freeman hit .302 in Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League with 6 home runs and 34 RBI in 255 at bats. He was then promoted to Double-A Mississippi, where he struggled a bit really for the first time in his career.

Freeman hit only .248 in 149 at bats in the Southern League, but there is no doubt the Braves pushed the young first baseman. Freeman had only 2 home runs and 24 RBI in his 41 games with Mississippi.

So overall for 2009, Freeman hit .282 with 8 home runs and 58 RBI in 404 at bats. His OBP was .363, slugging percentage was .408, and the OPS at .771.

In 2008 in Rome, Freeman hit .316 with 18 home runs and 95 RBI in 491 at bats.

The one big number that sticks out about Freeman is his age. Again, he just turned 20 years old on September 12. So he'll spend the majority of the 2010 season at that same age.

There is no reason to rush Freeman, even with the Braves not having a first baseman for 2010. They know how young he is, and they know if they have to have a stopgap at that position they'll find one.

The hope is for Freeman to return to Double-A to start the 2010 season. Then if he does well, the Braves might push him to Triple-A Gwinnett. But the Braves might instead decide to leave Freeman in the Southern League for the entire year.

But either way, the Braves hope Freeman is pushing them to make a decision on his future twelve months from now. The belief is he's definitely going to need the entire 2010 season to continue his development. But a debut in 2011 is not out of the question.

Of course, if the Braves decide to bring Adam LaRoche back, they may have to offer him a two-year contract. That would give the Braves plenty of time to fully develop Freeman in the minor leagues.

It's possible Freeman will need two full seasons to prepare for his big league debut. He may not be ready to take over at first base until 2012. If that happens, the Braves are going to have to have someone in that position.

Expect the Braves to be patient with Freeman, perhaps much more patient than with Heyward, who may force the Braves' hand sometime next summer. Freeman is just going to take a bit more time to develop, and the Braves believe once he does make it to Atlanta he could stay there a long time.

Freeman has a chance to be above average defensively, and there is little doubt about his power potential at the plate. But being so young gives the Braves plenty of time to let him fully enhance his skills at the minor league level.

So Freeman will be ready at some point, but it's probably going to be a while before we see him in Atlanta. Until then the Braves have to make do at first base.

Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.

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