Freddie Freeman: ‘If we don’t make the playoffs, it’s a missed year’

Freddie Freeman believes the 2018 Braves, who officially open in March, will be playing in October. “If we don’t make the playoffs, it will be a missed year,” he said Monday. “If you’re in this clubhouse and you’re not thinking that way, you’re in the wrong clubhouse.”

Maybe 24 other big-league clubs feel the same way. Maybe a half-dozen have the wealth of talent under contract that the Braves do. Much of that talent won’t be on the Opening Day roster, but it’s getting closer by the week. (In the case of Ronald Acuna, we’re speaking literally.)

Said Freeman, speaking before the Braves’ exhibition game against the Yankees at SunTrust Park: “The talent is unheard of. What they’ve done here the past three years has been amazing. There are big-name guys who could come up and have a huge impact. That’s something we haven’t had recently.”

About Acuna: “He’s special. He’s got all the tools. He’s got a great head on his shoulders. We have a lot of dynamic young guys who can come in and get in the lineup.”

About the Braves’ lovingly homegrown pitching, which will begin the season in the high minors: “The big talk was about (Mike) Soroka, (Kolby) Allard and Kyle Wright. Every time they pitched in spring training, they showed us something different. I don’t know which one of them is going to get here first.”

The Braves’ lineup Thursday won’t be the same as on July 31. That has been true in each of the past three seasons, but the Braves under John Coppolella were hell-bent on dumping veterans at the expense of the major-league product. (When you’ve made the decision to tank, you can’t half-tank it.) This year’s club will be adding talent, not subtracting. Acuna was sent to the minors only because it made long-term financial sense. Among Soroka, Allard and Wright, only the latter is older than 20 – and he has been a professional for nine months.

We say again: The full fruits of the great rebuild are only beginning to become self-evident. The Braves’ Opening Day outfield will include Lane Adams, Peter Bourjos or Preston Tucker; the starting outfield come May will include the No. 1 prospect in baseball. That’s a major upgrade waiting to happen.

The Braves fizzled early last season because the rent-a-codger experiment – Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey – didn’t take, but also because Julio Teheran, who in the first half of 2016 had been among baseball’s 10 best pitchers, was among its 10 worst. Spring stats can flatter to deceive, but it’s encouraging that Teheran had a Grapefruit League ERA of 1.40 and a WHIP of 0.97. Also of note: Brandon McCarthy, acquired in the Matt Kemp salary dump, had an ERA of 1.42 and a WHIP of 0.79 entering Monday’s start against the Yankees.

Freeman: “Our starting pitching looked fantastic.”

That rotation could/should get better as it goes. Don’t confuse Sorkoka/Allard/Wright with Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair, who represented the tip of the Braves’ newly acquired young pitching but who were, yet again, dispatched to the minors over the weekend. Wisler and Blair came from elsewhere. Soroka, Allard and Wright were scouted, drafted and nurtured by this organization. Once more, with feeling: The Braves liked many of the arms they hooked from other clubs; they absolutely loved the arms they drafted.

That Alex Anthopoulos, who became general manager after John Coppolella’s forced resignation, hasn’t traded a single significant prospect is an indication that the new man believes the top-ranked farm system is essentially as good as advertised. There will come a time when Anthopoulos needs to sacrifice some prospects to consummate a difference-making deal, and that could happen ahead of this year’s July 31 deadline. If these Braves hit the ground running, there’s no telling where they might wind up.

Freeman again, speaking of 2017: “We didn’t have the year we wanted. A couple of free agents didn’t have the impact we’d hoped, but we ended up having room for some young guys to come up, like Luiz Gohara. Matt Kemp got hurt and really wasn’t himself. I got hurt. Not many teams can lose their 4 and 5 hitters and not feel it. Obviously, we’ve got to stay healthy this year. But last year we had a lot of things go wrong, and we still finished third.”

Yes. And the Marlins have, as the Marlins often do, plunged into the tank. The Mets’ once-prized rotation must prove it can take more than one turn without sending someone to the disabled list. The rebuilding Phillies made a splash by signing Jake Arrieta, but Philadelphia finished six games behind the Braves, who should deliver a splash of their own when Acuna arrives.

Nobody expects the Braves to outrun the Nationals, but – unlike in, say, 1991 – a team doesn’t have to win its division to make the playoffs. The Rockies grabbed the second wild card last season by going 87-75. The belief here is that the Braves will rise to 80 wins, but what if they catch a hot start? What if Anthopoulos believes in July that his mostly inherited team is strong enough for him to make a go-for-it trade? What if more things go right than wrong? Is it utterly fanciful to think this club could be in the wild card hunt come September?

No, I say, it’s not. And so says Freddie Freeman.