LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It was an eventful first week of Braves camp, to say the least. The clubhouse – that’s what we generally call it in baseball, thought locker room also works — is jam-packed with 70 players this season, including a majors-leading 30 non-roster invitees, and the mood is noticeably better and more upbeat than last year.
Also, and we’ll get into this later, there seems to be more personality in this clubhouse, a lot of guys who are outgoing, funny, and like to razz each other from Day 1. Step into this inner sanctum this year and you’d never know that pundits and others aren’t picking the Braves to do much other than struggle in 2016. They’ve got a good mix of veterans and prospects – so many prospects, so many of whom are legitimately elite – and, perhaps because they don’t know better or maybe they do know something, they believe they’re going to surprise a lot of people and be a solid team. This year.
While that remains to be seen, I will say I think the Braves should be a lot closer to .500 than to last year’s 67-95 record, and I really do think they have a good chance to have a winning record in their first season at the new ballpark in 2017, as long as they stay on the current plan (and there’s no reason to believe they won’t stay on that path).
Anyway, here’s a brief recap of the first week of camp, the five biggest stories and five things that surprised me. You can click on the links within each entry to see what we wrote about each subject in the AJC.
TOP 5 STORIES OF WEEK 1
• Freeman to take things slow: General manager John Coppolella told us the day before Freddie Freeman reported to spring training that the big first baseman would take it slowly in the early part of camp, and ease into things so as not to aggravate the right wrist that caused him to miss 44 games in 2015 and prevented him from hitting for most of this winter, and even when he did hit late in the offseason it was just balls off a tee or tossed underhanded. But by the end of the week, Freeman had already hit three times in four days, the first two sessions in coach-pitch batting practice but the most recent a “live” batting practice session Saturday. He hasn’t had any problems with the wrist so far. That’s very good news for the Braves.
• “Frenchy” comes home: The Braves brought back their former Golden Boy, Jeff Francoeur, whose career has taken a lot of twists and turns since that memorable rookie season when he led the Baby Braves and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the label “The Natural.” Here’s the story from the night last week when they signed him to a minor league contract. Here’s the next-day story on reactions and how he might fit, and here is the story when he arrived in camp and told us what it was like to be back and why he decided to return.
• Markakis looks different second time around: Nick Markakis reported to spring training with a lot less beard and in a lot better shape than a year ago, when he was coming off December back surgery and hadn’t been permitted to work out or lift weights all winter. This time he had a full offseason with his normal rigorous workout routine, and Markakis could be in position to put last year’s three-homer season behind him and get back to being the hitter he was in Baltimore when he averaged 15 home runs per season over nine years and never hit fewer than 10. (His numbers last season, other than the shortage of homers, were otherwise solid and fairly typical of his career.)
• The Hammer stops by: Hank Aaron visited the clubhouse before the first full-squad workout, and there was reverence.
• Julio wants to be a leader: Julio Teheran, who’s expected to make his third consecutive Opening Day start, showed up fitter and stronger – a year ago seemed a bit soft when he reported to spring training – and said he’d decided to “do the right things” this year and be a leader of the pitching staff.
5 SURPRISES FROM WEEK 1
• I was surprised that Nick Swisher, at age 35, has been able to shed the knee braces he wore last season after a full offseason of working to strengthen the surgically repaired knees. The Braves have too many outfielders and have to hope he looks good in spring training and some teams offers to take him in a trade and pick up part of his salary.
• John Schuerholz and Andruw Jones were selected for induction this summer into the the Braves Hall of Fame. What’s the surprise? To me, it was that Schuerholz wasn’t already a member of the Braves Hall of Fame and, even bigger surprise, that he’s not yet in the Royals Hall of Fame. I mean how is he not in the Royals HOF? The Braves president and longtime former GM was the first major league GM to build World Series champions in each league. And it’s not like the Royals did a lot for the next couple decades after he left.
• That Erick Aybar has adapted to and embraced his new team easier than some anticipated, for a veteran who had spent his entire 10-year career with one team (Angels) after being signed and developed by that organization. He went from a team in the other league and that trained in Arizona to an NL team that trains in Florida, but Aybar said he’s loving it so far with the Braves despite leaving behind close friends such as Albert Pujols.
• I was surprised to learn that Ender Inciarte had grown up in Venezuela as the son of an ardent Braves fan, and that he and his brother and dad had attended a spring-training game at Champion Stadium and his dad had told him he hoped he’d one day play like Chipper Jones.
• Also, I didn’t know that Inciarte had a bond with Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez. They’re from the same town in Venezuela and Perez did what he could to make sure the Braves didn’t trade Inciarte away after getting him in a December trade from Arizona.
• And finally, even after having been around him since last spring, I was somewhat surprised to learn that 39-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzysnki is one of the first to the ballpark each day and has a regimen and routine he follows to the minute, something that folks might not expect judging from the nonchalant way that A.J. moves around and looks at the plate. I knew he worked hard, just wasn’t aware of how meticulous he was in his routine. A teammate who’s known him a long time said he works as hard as anyone he’s ever been around and said that, plus good genes, were the keys to his success at such an advanced age for a catcher.
• Let’s close with this one from the great Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter, about being down here in ol’ FLA.
DEEP DOWN IN FLORIDA by Muddy Waters & Johnny Winter
Yes, I’m goin’ down in Florida,
Where the sun shines damn near every day
Well, well I’m goin’ down in Florida,
Where the sun shines damn near every day
Yeah, I’ll take my woman out on the beach fellas ‘n,
And sit down on the sand and play
Yeah, well I think I’ll go down in Gainesville,
Just to see an old friend of mine
Well, I believe I’ll cut down in Gainesville,
Oh, just to see an’ old buddy of mine
Well, you know if we’re not too busy,
I believe that I’m gonna drop over in Uberry sometime
Let’s go back to Florida
Let’s go back down to Florida,
Where the sun shines
Yeah, I believe I’m gonna leave tomorrow,
Well, I’m gonna be on my way
Yes, I’m gonna have a plenty of time,
Well, I don’t wanna make myself late
Well, you know I believe I’ll go back down in Gainesville,
And this time I’m goin’ to stay
Let’s rise, let’s rise
Yeah, deep down in Florida,
Well, well that’s the place I long to be
Well, oh deep down in Florida,
Well that’s the place I long to be
Well, oh let me take my baby out in the backyard in the, backyard people,
And sit down under the old orange tree