Caray and Francoeur talked with the AJC about the season ahead:
On the outlook for Braves
The broadcasters are bullish on the Braves, who seek to build on a 2020 season that ended with a Game 7 loss in the National League Championship Series.
“I’ll put our lineup up with anybody in baseball,” Francoeur said. “Last year, I said the Braves had a dang good team with a chance to win the World Series. And I feel that way this year, maybe even a little stronger.”
The biggest key is “staying healthy,” Francoeur said.
Caray believes the Braves’ starting-pitching depth, including some arms that will open the season at the alternate training site, makes the team “uniquely positioned to have a good year” as it readjusts from last year’s 60-game sprint to the 162-game marathon.
“I think that reset is going to be really important to keep an eye on,” Caray said.
On the NL East
The National League teams with the best and second-best chances of reaching the World Series, as assessed by oddsmakers, are in the top-heavy NL West: the Dodgers and Padres, respectively. But top to bottom, the NL East might prove to be baseball’s most competitive division.
“The Braves are going to find out real fast where they stand,” said Caray, noting their first 13 games are against divisional opponents: six against the Phillies, three against the Nationals and four against the Marlins. The Braves won’t face the Mets, who could turn out to be their top challenger in the East after the addition of star shortstop Francisco Lindor and others, until May 17.
Francoeur thinks the Braves enter the season with the best-rounded team in the division: “I look at this Braves team, and I don’t really see a glaring weakness,” he said. “I don’t think you can say the same on all the other teams in our division.”
Caray: “I think the Braves are the team to beat.”
On the rookie in center field
Cristian Pache won the Braves’ starting center-field job because of his extraordinary defensive ability, which overcame his .162 batting average in spring training (through Monday).
“To me, with this Braves team, you can tell him, ‘Look, you’re going to bat eighth, and whatever I get from you offensively is great, but I just need you to run down every ball in center field,’” Francoeur said. “Eventually, I feel like this is a kid who will figure it out (offensively). But I’d rather him do it up here than down there (in the minors).”
Francoeur also pointed out a less-discussed significance of having Pache in center field: allowing Ronald Acuna to stay in right field after playing mostly in center the past two seasons.
“Ronald needs to settle in right field, needs to play right field every day,” Francoeur said. “I honestly think he’ll do 40-40 (40 homers and 40 stolen bases) this year if he stays in right field. It’s going to save his legs some. It’s going to be an advantage for him.”
Francoeur looks for Ender Inciarte to contribute as a defensive replacement for left fielder Marcell Ozuna in the late innings of games the Braves lead.
On the revamped bullpen
Francoeur thinks the loss of three key members of last season’s superb bullpen will be mitigated by a much better season from Will Smith, who is expected to assume the closer role.
“Will Smith is going to be a whole different animal this year,” Francoeur said. “He’s healthy, man. Last year, he had no confidence in his fastball. You can tell he’s a guy now who is throwing his fastball and then putting people away with his slider.”
Caray: “I think it’ll be interesting to see how the bullpen evolves.”
On pitchers hitting
Caray and Francoeur enjoyed the NL’s use of the designated hitter last year and aren’t cheering the return of pitchers to the batter’s box this season.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how much more interesting the games were, having regular hitters up there as opposed to pitchers,” Caray said. “It is what it is, but I was kind of disappointed they didn’t bring (the DH) back. … We’re trying to get more offense in the game, trying to get more excitement. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of excitement in (pitchers hitting).”
Francoeur: “I was always a National League-type guy, but being in that booth watching pitchers hit (in 2018-19), I’m all for the DH now.”