Braves set for World Series defense after MLB owners, players agree on new labor deal

MLB, players union agree to new CBA, end lockout. What’s next for the Braves?

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MLB, players union agree to new CBA, end lockout. What’s next for the Braves?

NORTH PORT, Fla. - Months after winning the World Series to cap a magical postseason run, the Braves and their fans waited. And waited. And waited some more.

There were twists and turns during the lockout implemented by Major League Baseball’s owners, but the 2021 World Series champions finally are back to defend their title.

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MLB and the MLBPA on Thursday reached an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, which ends the work stoppage that began Dec. 2. The Braves will open the 162-game season April 7 at Truist Park. Players can report to spring training as soon as Friday, with the mandatory report date being Sunday.

“I do want to start by apologizing to our fans,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters in New York. “I know that the last few months have been difficult, there was a lot of uncertainty, at a point in time when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world. Sort of the way the process of collective bargaining works sometimes, but I do apologize for it.”

The end of the lockout also means the transactions freeze will be lifted, allowing teams to communicate with players, their agents and rival clubs for the first time in months. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos and his front office now will be able to address their various priorities in hopes of fielding the best opening-day roster possible.

The biggest topic for the Braves is one fans have pondered for months: Will Freddie Freeman wear a Braves uniform this year?

Freeman, the face of the franchise, is a free agent who could have many suitors as the craziness unfolds. The former National League MVP has been in Atlanta since 2010, but the Braves failing to extend his contract left the door open to Braves fans’ worst nightmare. His recent production suggests he could provide significant value for a sizable portion of a long-term deal, but will both sides agree on the years and salary figure? Losing Freeman would leave a huge void on the Braves’ roster and in its clubhouse.

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Then you have Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler. All three helped the Braves win a championship, but all are free agents, which leaves the Braves with a decision to make on the three outfielders.

The Braves also could add pitching. From the outside looking in, Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson appear to be locks for the starting rotation. The Braves seemingly have multiple internal options to fill their rotation, but we will soon find out if they feel they need more experienced help.

When managing their roster, the Braves now will factor in the designated hitter, which becomes universal with the latest labor agreement. This is where Marcell Ozuna could come into the picture. Ozuna, who was arrested on domestic-violence charges in May, is eligible to play on opening day and could be the designated hitter. He is signed through 2024, but has an option in his contract for 2025.

The Braves, who signed reliever Kirby Yates before the lockout, could make more moves to round out their roster in the coming weeks. However, they do have tons of talent coming back, with Ronald Acuña, Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies leading the charge of young position players. Dansby Swanson will start at shortstop, but is a free agent after this season. (According to a person with knowledge of the situation, Acuña, who tore his ACL last season, still seems on track to return in May).

If the Braves can re-sign Freeman, they can put the band back together and try to defend their title after a storybook run last season.

Before the agreement on a new labor deal, MLB had postponed opening day to April 14, wiping out the season’s first four series. So instead of the Braves opening the season in Miami and then heading to New York – as the original schedule had them doing – they were going to begin the season with a seven-game West Coast road trip.

With opening day now April 7, the defending World Series champions will get to start their 2022 season at home – which feels fitting. The Braves, who are owed a ring ceremony, will begin their title defense in front of their own fans.

On Sunday, Braves minor leaguers not part of the 40-man roster opened minor-league camp at the club’s spring training complex. While they expressed their excitement to begin a new season, they mentioned the strange feeling of not having the big leaguers here.

Soon, everyone will experience some normalcy in a sport that hasn’t seen much of it over the past couple of years.

The wait is over. The champions are back.

WHAT BRAVES FANS NEED TO KNOW

Opening day: The Braves will open their season April 7 at Truist Park against Cincinnati.

Games: A full 162-game season is planned.

Spring training: Players can report to spring training as soon as Friday. The mandatory reporting date is Sunday.