SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) -Ryan Freel was convinced he'd finally made it.
The starting job in center field was his. The Cincinnati Reds gave him a $7 million contract extension that felt like a long-term commitment. Fans were walking around town in a special Freel shirt that looked like it was smudged with dirt.
In every way, he was a full-speed hit.
One brain-rattling collision later, his future has reverted to a shrug.
The 32-year-old outfielder is back where he started, playing a lot of different positions this spring while someone else is in center field. He's thought about the possibility of a trade. He's tried to figure out where he fits in new manager Dusty Baker's plans.
So far, no answers.
``That's a great question,'' he said Sunday morning, pumping his right leg nervously while sitting in a folding chair in the clubhouse. ``Nobody's said anything to me. I haven't heard anything. It's kind of hard to figure out what's going on around here.''
This much is certain: His days as a regular are done for now.
Corey Patterson was in center field Sunday against Tampa Bay, an indication of where Freel stands. Patterson, who played for Baker with the Cubs, signed on March 3 and has been on a fast track to the starting job. Norris Hopper also can bat leadoff and play center.
It adds up to a utility role for Freel, who made it to the majors on his hustle and versatility.
``The light at the end of the tunnel is starting to open a little more,'' he said. ``I can kind of see what direction they're headed. They've got me playing right and left and third and second, so it doesn't look like I'll be going to center much.''
It's a dramatic change from a year ago.
Freel got a full-time position for the first time in his career when the Reds moved Ken Griffey Jr. from center to right field during spring training last year. Two weeks into the season, they gave Freel a two-year, $7 million contract extension that seemed to say he was an important part of their plans.
``That's what it looked like, didn't it?'' Freel said. ``It's kind of crazy. I think what happened last year has taken a toll on this year. Obviously there's question marks. Obviously there's people questioning or doubting or whatever it may be.''
One of the team's scariest moments started to change those $7 million plans.
On May 28 at Great American Ball Park, the outfielder's no-holds-barred style resulted in one of his worst injuries. He ran full speed into Hopper, who was playing right field, while chasing a flyball.
Freel hit the ground hard and stayed down for 13 minutes. He had a severe concussion and a sprained neck. He was taken off in an ambulance.
He was hazy for a couple of weeks, when about the only thing he could do was take medical exams to see how his memory and focus were coming back. He was sidelined for a total of five weeks, allowing Josh Hamilton to take over his spot in center.
A month later, Freel was sidelined again by torn knee cartilage that required surgery and finished his season - and, apparently, his stint as a starter, the contract notwithstanding. He makes base salaries of $3 million this season and $4 million next year.
Baker is mulling different ways to use his center fielders.
``Now we've got to figure out what's the best team on any given day,'' he said Sunday. ``We've got to get some guys familiar with each other on the field. It's easy when you come in with a set lineup and sort of rotate that lineup. We've got a semi-set lineup.''
Playing at emergency-room speed has repeatedly set back his career, but Freel refuses to back off. After the concussion, he considered being a little more judicious in picking his spots to lay out for a flyball.
Didn't take him long to reject the notion. Whenever he gets on the field, he's leaving with part of it on the front of his uniform.
``If Corey Patterson is playing every day or Norris Hopper and we're winning, so be it,'' Freel said. ``That's what it's all about. I'm not going to change my style of play, if it means having to go into a wall or whatever.''

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