LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Freddie Freeman had only been in Braves camp a couple of hours Thursday, but already the first baseman could sense what he felt brewing for months, since the Braves won 20 of their last 30 games and then added three veteran starting pitchers during the offseason.
“I think the optimism in this camp is just off the charts right now,” Freeman said Thursday morning, as he examined new shoes and cleats at his locker stall and stretched the elastic bottoms of his uniform pants until stitching popped. “A lot of people still aren’t picking us, but I think we’re going to be right there in September playing meaningful baseball.”
The Braves are coming off 95- and 93-loss seasons, their worst back-to-back years in a quarter-century. But it’s a team that recovered from a dreadful start to go 50-47 in its final 97 games last year under then-interim manager Brian Snitker. Now players, coaches and front-office officials believe it’s a team that turned the corner in a major rebuilding project.
“I don’t look at this as a rebuild, I look at this as a team that can compete and go out there and play with any team,” said veteran left fielder Matt Kemp, who arrived in a trade-deadline deal last summer and helped an already improving offense shift up to another gear. “Hopefully this is not a rebuild; I want to win baseball games. I feel like we have a team that can go out there and win, especially with some of these veteran guys that they’re bringing in.
“That’s not, I don’t think, a rebuild stage.”
Snitker, who had the interim tagged dropped from his title when the Braves made him their full-time manager in October, agrees with the assessments of Freeman, Kemp and other Braves who say they’re no longer looking to make incremental progresss, but to compete for a playoff berth.
“So am I,” said Snitker, who had that message for early arriving position players and for pitchers and catchers who began formal workouts. “That’s what I told them guys, if we’re not (aiming for the postseason) then we shouldn’t be here, honestly. There’s no reason to think we can’t. There’s no reason, the way we ended up a few months ago, why we should not think that, honestly.”
Braves general manager John Coppolella has noticed the same thing that others have in the first days of spring training. Enthusiasm and more optimism.
“A big part of it is the way we finished last year,” Coppolella said, “and then to be able to add three starting pitchers to that mix, we feel like we have a chance to have a really good year.”
Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte pointed to the team’s series wins in late September against several teams — Nationals, Mets, Tigers — competing for postseason berths or home-field advantage in the playoffs.
“Everybody was competing for a playoff spot, and we beat everybody,” he said. “They wanted to beat us but we were just outplaying everybody. We were playing good baseball. That’s the way we want to start (in 2017). It’s not 150 games, it’s 162 games. We want to win as many games as we can, because watching games on TV in October is not fun.”
There will be plenty of Braves watchers rolling their eyes and saying, haven’t we heard this the past few spring trainings? Remember Jason Grilli and Jonny Gomes talking about winning the division before the 2015 season? Or the front office last year insisting the Braves had made moves to be competitive not just in the future but in 2016?
We watched the Braves fall apart by mid-season (2015) or much earlier (2016) and fall to irrelevence before September.
But this year is different, the Braves say. And they do seem to mean it.
“People are living it now,” said Snitker, adding that even when veterans and team leaders said what they were supposed to say publicly before the past two seasons, behind closed doors the Braves knew it was going to be tough. “Organizationally we all knew different. We were rebuilding, or retooling, a lot of different areas in our organization. And now it’s happened, and why not think that (they can legitimately compete in 2017)?
“You’ve still got to go out and play the games. You can make it as optimistic as you want. A lot of things are out of your control, but we’re going to get ourselves in shape and give it everything we’ve got. These guys always have. They were laying it out there for nine innings a game last year.”
In the NL East, the New York Mets and Washington Nationals are still everyone’s picks to finish first and second, in either order.
“It’s two really good teams,” Kemp said. “They have a lot of well-known guys and a lot of guys that can play baseball. It’s not going to be an easy division to win, but I think it’s something that’s possible (for the Braves). We’ve just got to work hard and win baseball games.”
Inciarte said, “We have a lot of expectations. We feel like we’re going to compete and hopefully we’re going to get as many wins as we can and go to the playoffs.”
Asked if he felt a different vibe around camp, more energy and optimism this year in his second season with the Braves, Inciarte said, “I think so, yeah. There’s better atmosphere. Everybody is pulling for the same thing, that’s winning games. Everybody here knows we have a pretty good team now.
“The front office did a great job through the offseason, and I don’t see this team as a rebuilding team now. I feel like we can compete against anybody.”