How Alex Anthopoulos put Sam Hilliard at ease heading into spring training

Sam Hilliard of the Braves hits a single against the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Sam Hilliard of the Braves hits a single against the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

NORTH PORT, Fla. — A couple of months after the Braves acquired Sam Hilliard in the first trade of the MLB offseason, Hilliard had a conversation with Alex Anthopoulos that helped put him at ease with spring training only weeks away.

“He was extremely transparent with me, which was really refreshing and good as a baseball player,” Hilliard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s not something that I’ve ever been used to in my career. He just sort of told me, ‘Hey, we traded for you because of this. This is what we expect. This is what we don’t expect.’ I was like, ‘Cool.’ It took a little bit of pressure off my shoulders knowing exactly what they expected, and I think that had to contribute to allowing me to come here and play well.”

To be clear: Hilliard soon clarified that he didn’t mean this as a slight to the Rockies. Different organizations and executives, he said, simply have their own ways of conducting business. To this point in his career, he had never had a conversation with a general manager like the one he had with Anthopoulos, the Braves’ president of baseball operations. (“He seems like he’s going around and really connecting with the players,” said Hilliard, who added the Braves’ players seem to really respect Anthopoulos.)

During that conversation – which happened in January at Braves Fest – Anthopoulos told Hilliard that he’s a good defender who can play all three outfield positions, which is why the Braves traded for him. If he ends up hitting, then he’ll exceed expectations. But the Braves wanted him for his defense.

“It was huge,” Hilliard said. “It takes a little bit of that weight off your shoulders. You come in not pressing, not trying to do more than what’s expected of you, because you know exactly what they expect. It’s just a good, relaxing feeling.”

Hilliard is out of minor-league options, which helped his case to make the opening-day roster. If the Braves don’t put him on there, they almost certainly will lose him after placing him on waivers. Hilliard also is playing really well this spring.

Hilliard is batting .413 with a 1.065 OPS this spring. He’s hit one home run while driving in 10 runs. Hilliard’s defense has always been ahead of his offense, but perhaps the offense will catch up a bit at some point.

“You hope,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They’re going to keep working, I know that. You never know when something might click or you might figure something out. As long as they keep playing, they give themselves a chance. When you got skills like that, it’s always a possibility.”

Hilliard hoped to come to camp and prove he could hit consistently. He wanted to refine his approach. And of course, he made it a priority to continue playing great defense.

Hilliard, who made his debut in 2019 for the Rockies, never has played more than 81 games in a major-league season. Barring injury, he’ll be in a bench role for the Braves if he makes the roster. But he hopes to be more consistent at the big-league level.

“The things that I’ve learned not being an everyday starter my whole career is how to get myself ready in any situation, whether it’s coming off the bench, or a surprise to start, if someone gets scratched and I end up going in the lineup,” Hilliard said.

“And also, through that, I’ve been up and down a little bit. I’ve played a lot with a lot of pressure on me, and I’d go down, and I’d have no pressure. You start to realize it’s all kind of self-inflicted, stuff going on between the ears. Over time, you start to realize that that’s stuff that you can actually control, and you don’t have so much weight on yourself. It’s kind of an eye-opening feeling when you realize that. It doesn’t make the game any less hard, but you can kind of get out of your way a little bit more.”

This is how he came to that realization: Hilliard, now 29, used to feel like he had to do a lot every day to be in the next day’s lineup when he was in the majors. But at Triple-A, he felt like the best player on the field. He knew he would be in the lineup the next day, and therefore he didn’t press.

Like everyone else who reported to North Port, Hilliard set out with the goal of making the opening-day roster. He’s close to accomplishing that.

He feels like the best is yet to come in his career.

“I feel like I have a lot left to show,” he said. “If I can get out of my own way, I feel like the sky’s the limit for me.”

Michael Harris returns, Eddie Rosario sits

Michael Harris II, who was scratched from Friday’s lineup because of back tightness, returned for Saturday’s game in North Port versus the Twins.

Eddie Rosario, who was scratched Friday with lower back tightness, was initially in Saturday’s lineup, but the Braves wanted to give him an extra day. He is fine, the Braves said.

Harris went 2-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored in Saturday’s 9-4 win over the Twins in North Port.

Ronald Acuña Jr. hits long homer

In Saturday’s game at CoolToday Park, Ronald Acuña Jr. blasted a home run that went over the berm in left field.

Acuña finished 2-for-4 with that home run, a triple, two RBIs and two runs scored.

“That was good,” Snitker said. “He smoked those couple balls. Holy cow.”

Collin McHugh to appear on Bally Sports

Braves reliever Collin McHugh will be a special guest in the broadcast booth for the start of Sunday’s game on Bally Sports South.

The Braves will play the Pirates at 1 p.m., and McHugh will spend a few innings with play-by-play announcer Brandon Gaudin and analyst Peter Moylan.