The Braves are the good kind of boring

Credit: AJC

Here's a quick look at some key spring dates for the Atlanta Braves.

Credit: AJC

Baseball spring training always has been a salve for my sportswriter cynicism. For several years I’ve gone to Braves camp and felt my doubts dissolve as players and the manager talked about their optimism for the season. That’s unlike me. Maybe it’s the regenerating sunshine.

Unfortunately, I won’t be making the spring training trip to Florida this year because of the pandemic. But the distance doesn’t dampen my usual spring sunniness. And this is the first year in a long time when no wishful thinking is needed to be bullish on the Braves as World Series contenders.

The Braves are boring in the best sense of the word.

“I tell those guys we are not plugging that many holes,” Brian Snitker said Thursday, the first day of his fourth spring training as Braves skipper. “The first year I was a manager here, we were putting a sign out on the interstate: ‘Will work for food.’”

Good help is still wanted by the Braves. No MLB team has zero weaknesses, though the 2021 Dodgers come close (that’s what a good front office and a projected $260 million payroll gets you). It’s rare that everything goes according to plan in baseball, which is a weird game. There will be bad injury luck for some players and underperformance by others.

Yet the Braves as constructed at the start of spring training 2021 appear to be as complete as any Braves team at this time of year since ... well, I’ve been watching them closely since 2010. and I can’t remember when I genuinely believed they’d be a World Series contender when camp opened.

“As this thing gets going and gets right and we become competitive, there is going to be less and less jobs open,” Snitker said “And that’s good thing. You never know what might happen with injuries, but ... there’s really not any glaring holes that we are looking to plug.

“That’s kind of a testament to what we’ve become.”

The Braves have become three-time National League East champions. They have reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman anchoring the lineup. They have more pitching depth than they had to begin the past three seasons. I don’t need to squint to see the Braves as World Series contenders. My spring optimism is really, truly justified by the roster they take into camp.

They showed remarkable resilience during the strange, 60-game season in 2020. They dominated the Reds and Marlins in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Dodgers beat the Braves in the NL Championship Series largely because they had more quality arms. That outcome, and the return to a 162-game season, signaled to Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos that he needed more pitching.

He signed veterans Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Mike Soroka is back on the mound after tearing his Achilles in August. Max Fried was great throughout 2020. Ian Anderson was fantastic from August through October.

After re-signing Marcell Ozuna two weeks ago, the Braves will return their top six hitters from 2020. I figured Ozuna could be good for the Braves last season because, even while scuffling in St. Louis, he was hitting the ball in the air (he went long twice against Dallas Keuchel in the 2019 NL Division Series). I didn’t know Ozuna would be so good that he would nearly win the Triple Crown (it was 60 games, but still).

Really, the only big question about the 2021 Braves is whether their young pitchers can keep up the performances they’ve shown in relatively small sample sizes. The PECOTA projection at Baseball Prospectus doubts that they will. I disagree, especially regarding Soroka. Even if I’m wrong and one or two of them regresses, the Braves can win behind Morton and Smyly.

Snitker said Thursday that Morton and Smyly reported for camp with no health issues, so the Braves already are ahead of where they were a year ago.

“We have really good depth,” Snitker said of his rotation. “I think it’s quality depth, too.”

The bullpen won’t have closer Mark Melancon (Padres) this season. He was good in 2020, but his strikeout rate dipped. Will Smith had a rough 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19, but when he’s in form, he is a strikeout guy. The Braves have always seemed to figure things out in the ‘pen, even when they have fewer options than now. If they need another reliever, then chances are that Anthopoulos will find a way to acquire an effective one.

Maybe I’m wrong about all of this. My February optimism has turned out to be unwarranted before. The last time I’ve felt close to this good about the Braves’ chances at the start of the spring was in 2019.

The Braves had won their first division title since 2013. The Dodgers overwhelmed them in the 2018 NLDS, but the Braves were ahead of schedule. There were plenty of reasons to think the Braves would be better in 2019 even as their NL East competition looked stronger.

The lineup had proven veterans Freeman and Josh Donaldson and young stars Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. Right-hander Julio Teheran’s regression mattered less because Mike Foltynewicz finally looked like a staff ace. Anibal Sanchez was gone after reviving his career with the Braves in 2018, but Soroka and Fried had shown enough in glimpses to think they’d help in 2019.

The Braves won the division again. But they lost the NLDS again, this time to the Cardinals, after a nightmare inning in the deciding Game 5. Foltynewicz no longer looked like an ace and lefty Keuchel, signed in June, fizzled in October. Freeman scuffled with a bad elbow that needed surgery. These things happen in baseball.

The Braves needed more pitching and a deeper lineup for 2020. They added Cole Hamels, replaced Donaldson in the lineup with Ozuna and beefed up the bullpen. I was again optimistic about their chances going into spring training. That sunny outlook didn’t even last a day.

Hamels wasn’t healthy when the Braves reported to Florida. Then Acuna and Ozuna were bad in exhibition games. There was a big hole at third base. It wasn’t long before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down sports.

Hamels still wasn’t ready when the Braves reconvened for camp before the season started in July. Veteran right-hander Felix Hernandez, signed as insurance before the spring, opted out of the season. Freeman and Smith reported for camp and tested positive for COVID-19.

There is so such drama for the Braves this spring. There are no major voids on the roster. They open camp as legitimate World Series contenders. The betting markets and PECOTA don’t buy it, but I do. I won’t be in Florida for Braves spring training, but my usual optimism is intact. This year there’s no good reason foe me to doubt that feeling.

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