Spring training is nigh, maybe? Time to fire up worry over Braves

Atlanta Braves first baseman Freedie Freeman and the team take batting practice while preparing to play the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game at the Braves' facility CoolToday Park on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)
Caption
Atlanta Braves first baseman Freedie Freeman and the team take batting practice while preparing to play the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game at the Braves' facility CoolToday Park on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Seeing how baseball’s players would rather deal with the coronavirus than the owners, it appears as if spring training will start shortly. For the Braves, that means packing up the gloves and bats and cotton swabs and reporting to their little clearing in the south Florida scrub in a couple of weeks. There’s a Feb. 27 spring training opener against the Orioles that hasn’t been scrapped yet. Yay?

Ownership wanted it all bumped back a month, it said, to give the virus a little more time to climb down from this peak and the vaccine more time to reach the herd. It would have combined a 1950s-style schedule at 154 games with a 22nd century postseason, 14 teams crowding into October like clowns in a car.

To which the players responded: We don’t trust you or your science. We’ll take our chances with COVID-19, at least it doesn’t infect our direct deposit. Now make it work on our terms.

Were I a fan, I don’t think I’d rent a condo on Venice Beach just yet for a glorious Braves spring training trip. There has been no word on whether fans will play any role in the next couple of months. True, it’s Florida and they may yet open a Non-Roster Invitee Kissing Booth at CoolToday Park. But, honestly, contacting Freddie Freeman at all this spring may have to involve a skywriter or messenger pigeon.

So, from a distance, no matter what else may alter the course of this spring training, it is still time for the traditional questioning of the Braves fitness. Around this time each year it is customary to worry about gains in the rest of the National League East and how Liberty Media won’t respond by signing every available free agent. We want Justin Turner, and we want him yesterday.

Currently, these concerns are centered on who might run down fly balls in left field without calliope music spontaneously erupting while also occupying that crucial role of Freeman’s wing man. Marcell Ozuna hit behind Freeman last season, and it was a glorious thing to witness over the condensed sample size of 60 games. But he is on the market now.

There is absolutely nothing in the collected works of Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos to indicate a willingness to sign Ozuna to a rich, long-term contract. The universe has decided it’s much better that he not regularly take the field, but the universal designated hitter does not appear to be as in vogue as it was a year ago. This makes Ozuna slightly less attractive in the NL, but certainly someone in some league will overpay. If not, he remains an option.

The Braves lineup, which carried this team through the weirdness of 2020, has a rather large hole in it right now. Do you bring back Adam Duvall? Is Cristian Pache ready for every day? Who else is out there ready to be the one-year miracle solution, to play the part of Josh Donaldson and Ozuna? Oh, the fretting is never done.

Assuming that Mike Soroka rebounds from Achilles surgery – and the kid does possess a strong elastic character – the starting pitching would seem to be sound. Here the Braves did a bit of shopping. To the mix of Max Fried and Ian Anderson the Braves added 37-year-old Charlie Morton and 31-year-old left-hander Drew Smyly, whose name I will misspell at least three times this season, so stay on your toes, copy editors.

Morton was fun to watch during Tampa Bay’s run last postseason and such joy would be so much more meaningful in 2021, wouldn’t it? Smyly had a handful of good innings last season – he started five games – and from that tiny plot the Braves hope a championship rose blooms.

Promises are sketchy and often unkept when it comes to arms. But if both Morton and Smyly are able to get through these next few months without sharing a comparative clause with the name Cole Hamels, then they might consider it at least a qualified success.

The bullpen that had grown in star status allowed a couple of members – Mark Melancon and Shane Greene – to explore free agency. Whether the Braves bring back Melancon is another of spring’s pressing questions. And whether Will Smith will stop courting the home run is another. Those leverage situations are not going to solve themselves.

Spring training is nigh, so they say. Really, though, that is the biggest question of spring training: What kind of spring training is there going to be?

But we must prepare as normally as possible.

That means questioning everything. And it ultimately means trusting in Anthopoulos a whole lot more than a player will ever trust an owner.

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