JUPITER, Fla. -- For David Freese, the difference a year can make is evidenced in the two challenges that no longer lie before him.
Gone are the demands and requests that trail the reigning World Series Most Valuable Player Award winner. Gone, too, are the questions about when he'd finally be able to stay healthy and off the disabled list for a full season.
A 2012 season in which Freese played in 144 games took care of both. And from that full season, Freese transitioned into an offseason that was relatively serene for the first time in two years. While he did briefly make headlines for a November automobile crash, Freese found peace outside the spotlight. The media demands, the public appearance requests, it all died down.
"It was awesome. It was very quiet," Freese said. "I haven't come into Spring Training with this much energy and this big of a smile in a while. It is tiring sometimes playing in your hometown when people keep coming at you. It's also great. I wouldn't want it any other way."
That part of the equation -- being the hometown kid on the hometown team -- will remain for as long as Freese wears a Cardinals uniform. What he no longer has to juggle, though, are the residual effects of a historic postseason.
"I had no idea what I was in for," Freese said. "It was a learning experience, but I think I've learned a lot. Ever since [Allen] Craig caught that last out in the World Series, I've learned more about myself than I had in my entire life.
"It's hard, because I care about people. I care about making people happy. Sometimes you have to look out for yourself and your friends and your family. When it comes down to it, you just have to worry about yourself and worry about how you can help the Cardinals win games."
Freese was able to do that last year by staying on the field, a seemingly simple task that had been anything but for the third baseman in previous years, due largely to ankle and finger injuries. That's why he entered 2012 with goals not based in numbers, but in health.
Aside from some minor day-to-day injuries, Freese played healthy. And that health set him up for a solid year of production and improvements on defense.
"I really wanted to come out and prove to myself and to people that I can handle my own for a full season in the big leagues," Freese said. "You can't run from those questions. Anybody is lying if they're saying that they don't hear what people say. It's up to them to choose to feel it."
Freese became one of five Cardinals to hit 20 home runs last season, and he drove home 79, a total that ranked sixth among all National League third baseman. He hit .293. The production mirrored Freese's numbers from the previous two years, but this time he was able to offer it uninterrupted for six months.
Freese settled into the sixth spot in the lineup late in the year and projects to hit there again in 2013, behind Craig and Yadier Molina. Freese will do so as a new millionaire, too, having seen his salary escalate over the winter due to the arbitration process. After earning $508,000 in 2012, Freese will make $3.15 million this year.
It's a salary figure, Freese said, that won't alter his expectations. Defensively, though, Freese sees particular room to grow.
With an ultimate zone rating of -0.5 in 2012, Freese was considered to be near-average defensively at his position. The assessment would have been a bit more favorable had Freese had a stronger finish. He committed one-third of his 18 errors in the final month of the season, something that Freese said he attributes to his body tiring late in the year.
"Obviously I racked up some errors there," Freese said. "It's kind of cool, though, because you learn how to go about it as far as staying in shape, eating right and understanding physically and mentally what it really takes to push through a regular season."
Not only did Freese play more games than he had in a season, but he also played deeper into them.
"He was a guy who had always been replaced defensively, and he worked himself into the type of player we felt comfortable leaving out there all game long," manager Mike Matheny said. "I think that's a huge compliment, and a lot of that has to do with health."
Aside from a short stint nursing a bruised tailbone -- which he sustained trying to make a catch in foul territory -- Freese has had no early health setbacks this spring. His ankles, Freese said, continue to get stronger after years of weakening. His legs, he believes, are better prepared to handle the demands of a complete season.
Freese's mind is clear of the distractions he had to deal with in the year that followed his improbable October.
"Every day, I learn more and more about what I need to do to make myself a better person and a better player," Freese said. "And I feel like if I'm healthy, that's going to be enough to help the team."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.