His odds of returning to the big leagues were long for veteran major league reliever Sam Freeman when the KC Royals signed him to a minor league contract in January. Beset by a career full of control problems, he’d missed the 2021 season rehabbing from his second Tommy John Surgery and was 34 with another birthday awaiting him in June.
But the Royals seem to rarely encounter a potential pitching reclamation project they can resist, so the flier they took on Freeman wasn’t surprising. They assigned him to Triple-A Omaha where, after missing almost a month early in the season, he pitched quite well. But as the campaign wore on, and the Kansas City bullpen established itself as one of the worst in the majors, the club never looked to Freeman for help.
His season, and perhaps his career, ended earlier this week when Omaha released him.
Sam Freeman was a pretty good reliever for the KC Royals’ Triple-A club.
That an organization flush with young pitchers cut loose a mid-30’s reliever isn’t shocking. Freeman, though, threw effectively for the Storm Chasers—his 1.50 ERA over 34 appearances was superb, and he went 3-2 with one save and struck out a respectable 32 in 36 innings.
He was good from the beginning. A few weeks on the Injured List limited him to eight games in the season’s first two months, but he entered June with a 0.00 ERA and went 1-0, 1.86 in nine games. July was even better—he was 1-0 again, but with a 0.87 ERA in 10 appearances.
This month wasn’t as kind. Freeman had a 3.86 ERA, and an 0-2 record, for the month when the news of his release came. What happened in two games a week apart might have figured in the decision.
The lefthander relieved Andres Nunez Aug. 10 with the Chasers leading Toledo by a run in the ninth. On base were two Mud Hens; Freeman immediately surrendered a run-scoring and game-tying single, then fanned two straight to end the inning. But he gave up a game-winning RBI single in the 10th to add his first loss of the season to a blown save.
Seven days later, he entered the ninth inning against Louisville to protect Omaha’s 3-1 lead. Unfortunately, the Bats’ first two hitters singled and Isiah Gilliam followed with a walk-off homer to hand Louisville a 4-3 win.
On the surface, those two losses didn’t seem to faze him or Omaha manager Scott Thorman, who wasted no time returning Freeman to the fire by choosing him for a save situation the first evening after Gilliam beat him. This time, Freeman struck out two, retired the Bats in order, and earned his first save of the year. And he closed out the Storm Chasers’ 10-6 Aug. 20 victory over Louisville with a scoreless inning.
Nevertheless, he’s out of work.
Should the KC Royals have given Sam Freeman a chance to help their bullpen?
Whether Freeman could have improved Kansas City’s relief corps will never be known. But he probably couldn’t have hurt it.
Aside from the consistently good work of Scott Barlow, the Royal bullpen has been, and is, a sore spot. It’s tied with Cincinnati’s for the worst ERA (4.86) in the majors, has given up the most walks (236), and has the big leagues’ highest OBA (.264) and worst WHIP (1.52). It’s also been charged with the second most earned runs and surrendered the third most hits and runs.
Could Freeman have helped? As one pitcher, he wouldn’t have made much difference in the pen’s overall stats, but he might have been a decent addition, especially considering his performance at Omaha and some of the good big league seasons he’s had, including 2-0, 2.61 in 44 games for Matheny’s Cardinals in 2014, his 54-game 3.05 effort at Texas the next year, and the 2-0, 2.55 season (63 appearances) he had for Atlanta in 2017.
If anything about Freeman gave the Royals pause, though, it was probably the 5.25 BB/9—21 walks in 36 innings—he had this season at Omaha, a clip almost imperceptibly worse than the 5.24 mark he’s posted in parts of nine major league seasons. Perhaps the inability to improve his control made the Kansas City brain trust uneasy and unconvinced.
But, and despite the fact he certainly wasn’t in the club’s long range plans, he should have been worth at least a try. He might have helped the Royals win a few more games, if only for a season.
Kansas City has a bad bullpen. Maybe Sam Freeman could have helped.