Braves pitchers and catchers reported to spring training Friday. I’ll do the same soon, and I’m really looking forward to it.
To sports fans, this seems like a normal reaction. But seeing how the sausage is made tends to lessen the enjoyment of the final product. I like spring training because it undercuts my sportswriter cynicism and reconnects me with the joy of sports.
(As you can see, it even inspires sentimental clichés.)
I like that, right now, nothing has gone wrong for the Braves and everything could go right. My baseball analysis is grounded in what can be measured, but it wouldn’t be any fun if the numbers could predict everything. It’s refreshing to focus on what’s possible when that still includes almost anything.
Those are my feelings every year when I go to Braves spring training. No matter how bad the team was the previous season, or how bad it appears on paper that year, I do not roll my eyes when players and coaches offer their sunny outlooks. I nod along and think, Yeah, why not?
This year, for the first time in a long time, I can go to Braves spring camp and feel optimistic about their chances without reaching so hard that I pull something.
The Braves won the National League East in 2018. They are good enough to do it again in 2019.
No doubt, this year’s Braves have some significant holes. Certainly, their NL East rivals made several moves that should toughen the competition in the division. Those numbers I like always have a range of outcomes, and randomness plays a role (so goes life).
But the Braves are contenders. How can they not be with a lineup that includes Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna, Josh Donaldson and Ozzie Albies? That’s a fine collection of hitters, two proven over the long haul and two already good with the best to come.
There’s some lineup depth. In 2018 Johan Camargo was behind only Acuna in second-half production. Ender Inciarte had his usual late surge. Utility man Charlie Culberson’s production was a nice surprise that could be repeated because, hey, why not.
The Braves’ pitching rotation has an anchor (Mike Foltynewicz), a reliable veteran (Kevin Gausman) and a youngster with still-untapped potential (Sean Newcomb). The Braves again can send out a bunch of promising young arms and see which ones can hack it as starters or bullpen pieces.
The Braves’ lineup is strong at the top and solid through the middle. Their pitching rotation has, dare I say it, an ace. The defense is top-notch.
In short, it’s reasonable to believe the Braves can repeat as NL East champions. No spring sugarcoating required.
This is a big change from a year ago, which isn’t breaking news. Still, it’s striking to look back this time last year and see just how low expectations were for the Braves.
They had won 72 games in 2017. Their previous general manager had been banned from the game for violating international signing rules. Their new general manager didn’t make any major moves.
Here were some AJC Braves headlines from this time last year:
“Competition plentiful for third base.”
“New-look Teheran spent time on mechanics”
“Tucker likely to platoon in left field”
“Still a year to go”
“How much hope to pack for spring?”
Fast forward to now.
There is no competition at third base. The Braves actually have two very good options there with Donaldson and Camargo.
Julio Teheran is coming off another disappointing season. It doesn’t matter as much because Foltynewicz made the kind of leap that looks real: dramatically increased strikeout rate, steady walk rate and a boost in velocity.
There is no platoon in left field now (and Preston Tucker is long gone). That’s the kingdom of Acuna, the NL rookie of the year in 2018.
It turned out the Braves didn’t have a year to go. They were ready in 2018. They were a fun team to watch even if their run ended with a thud against the Dodgers.
When I go down to Florida this weekend, I’ll be packing a lot of hope for the Braves. I would have done that even if they were going to be bad because that’s what spring training does to me.
But the Braves really do look like they are going to be good this year. This spring, I can embrace my optimism without reservation. It’s a cool feeling.
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