Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 17, 2017

New stadium, new enthusiasm for young Braves

Here’s one fan ready for baseball’s return.

Hope springs eternal. That phrase was driven home just about every time I ever spoke to my late friend and baseball lifer, Cal Ermer. It could easily be a universal truth, but Ermer specifically applied the phrase to baseball.

And being a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves – at least as much of a fan as being as professional sportswriter could allow – an optimistic phrase or two goes a long, long way.

With every lengthening day, every warble of a newly returned songbird and every bloom of a very confused jonquil, we get nearer to that day.

One of the best things about pitchers and catchers reporting is that your imagination can easily replicate the scene: conditioning drills, pitchers fielding their position in every scenario imaginable, and the pop, pop, pop of 40 pitchers making their tentative first throws to one of the eight available catchers.

Throw in the smell of freshly mown grass, and you’re just about there.

With pitchers and catchers reporting on Valentine’s Day, this year’s Braves roster has a brand-new anticipation about it. Much of that is because of the Cobb County behemoth that is SunTrust Park.

It may seat “only” 41,000, but the $672 million ballpark (part of a $1.1 billion mixed-use development) is going to plop the Atlanta franchise front and center among those teams employing a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art facility.

Coming in on budget and on schedule, it will host a college game and a Braves-Yankees exhibition before coming on-line officially on April 14, the San Diego Padres providing the unlikely opponent.

It should also offset many of the budget concerns the Braves have faced in the last 20 years due to the improved-but-still-awful radio-TV deal that former owner Time Warner left behind like some kind of venereal disease.

Another reason is the new-look offense that emerged virtually overnight and earned raves in a September audition. It will feature:

Rookie sensation Dansby Swanson from Vanderbilt, who hit .302 in his 2016 audition

Matt Kemp, who returned to his 100-RBI form and promises to be in the “best shape of his career” this season

Freddie Freeman, who is becoming arguably the best offensive first baseman in the NL, coming off a September in which he was voted Player of the Month by the league

Leadoff man/Gold Glove outfielder Ender Inciarte, hitting his prime with a new, five-year contract in his hip pocket. His performance led to the Braves unexpectedly dealing away Mallex Smith over the winter.

But the buzz that true baseball “insiders” seem to be noisiest about is the next wave of rookie pitchers getting closer and closer.

Who’ll be the man generating all the buzz this year? The amazing thing is it could any one of five or more: Max Fried, Lucas Sims, A.J. Minter, Matt Siroka or Sean Newcomb – and there are pitchers better than they are pushing them from farther down in the system.

But do not make the mistake of dismissing the current wave of pitching talent. The general consensus is that Mike Foltynewicz, the Braves’ top winner a year ago, has “made it” as a 9-6 record would suggest.

But the young gun most predicted would claim a role, Matt Wisler, suffered a setback season, while Aaron Blair had a horrible year, albeit one punctuated by one of the year’s best starts against the playoff hungry Detroit Tigers over the final weekend.

The Braves have already conditioned us to accept as fact that the starting rotation will be anchored by a pair of 40-something rent-a-pitchers, R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon, while Jaime Garcia (who the Cardinals had given up on ever being healthy again) is somehow presumed to be healthy again and in line to be the No. 3 guy in the rotation.

Long-time Braves observers – and I consider myself one – know this is a big bunch of hooey. The Braves are paying each of these guys millions to be “just in case.” As in, just in case the nearly ready youngsters fail outright or suffer more setbacks.

Last year, the Braves and lame-duck manager Fredi Gonzalez more or less handed starting jobs to Wisler, Blair and Folty, with only the latter proving worthy.

This year, the declared mantra is “no starting jobs will be awarded, only earned.” But no one who is ready to take on major league hitters will be held back.

Remember Bud Norris? Jhoulys Chacin? Lucas Harrell? Rental players, with a one-year deal and no future, as soon as their services were not needed in Atlanta or needed more elsewhere, they were “flipped,” or dealt to yet another team, often in return for a prospect of some worth.

And it’s a strategy with plenty of merit. Norris brought back Caleb Dirks, a promising reliever they let get away, and fast-rising specialist Phil Pfiefer, a Knoxville native and former Vanderbilt pitcher.

Harrell was the main piece that tempted the Rangers to give up Travis Demeritte, who has major league potential as a middle infielder.

Just like Bruce Springsteen always has a song in his back pocket that he’s working on, so, too, does John Coppolella always seem to have a trade in the works.

As I write this, it has just become official that the Braves have acquired veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips, a three-time all-star, from the Reds for, basically, nothing. The Reds are picking up all but $1 million of his $14 million contract because they are desperate to clear his roster spot.

So figure that, come June, when injured Sean Rodriguez (shoulder surgery) or Ozzie Albies (broken elbow) are ready for the big leagues, Phillips could possibly be flipped for far more than the Braves spent to acquire him. Phillips retains a limited no-trade clause that allows him to veto a deal to 12 teams.

It would be a welcome bonus if, at the very start of spring training games, the Braves have set their starting lineup. Fans could begin to acquaint themselves with the newer arrivals and, like the front office, spend endless hours talking about the bench, the bullpen and the rotation. You know, normal Hot Stove League stuff.

Brian Snitker, the players’ choice, had the interim tag removed from his title after the Braves posted one of the best records in baseball for the month of September. That led to the unsurprising amount of grousing on some of the fan sites that a “name” wasn’t brought in.

But all you have to do is compare the Braves of last April and to the team that kicked some butt in September. No comparison. Darkness and light.

A man who kicked around in the minors for most of his 25 years in baseball, Snitker has earned the right to fail or succeed on his own merits. If anything goes wrong with the 2017 Braves, it doesn’t figure to be in manager’s office.

But if you are like most fans, the anticipation will turn to anxiety the minute you begin deliberating where exactly you’re supposed to park around SunTrust Park, the interchange to which was already one of the worst in Atlanta, if not the entire Southeast.

Interstate 75, at this point a 10-lane monstrosity, connects with I-285 East and West, with one or two lanes exiting into another four or five lanes of commuters commuting. Most game times, of course, will dovetail rather badly with rush hour.

The Braves, Cobb County and local parking concerns have done their best, it seems, to try to alleviate the seemingly justified fears you figure to have parking at an unknown facility and walking through areas of indeterminate safety before you enter the complex.

Articles written to reassure fans date all the way back to 2014, well before ground was broken on the stadium proper. To their credit, plans and planning stories have been churned out with regularity.

This, from the Braves’ own web site:

The Braves will be able to offer more than 11,000 parking spaces on game day. This is more spaces than we owned or leased at Turner Field, and we continue to add more spaces as we near Opening Day. Parking for premium A-List members will go on sale immediately with additional A-List parking available in the following weeks. Single-game parking will go on sale in March.

Fans who buy premium tickets (the above mentioned A-List) will have guaranteed parking spaces attached to the plan, and parking lots will ring the stadium to nearly 360 degrees. However, the biggest lots are on the other side of I-285 from the new park, which speaks to lots of shuttling. And in every announcement, the Braves point out that Suntrust Park’s capacity of 41,000 is more than 10,000 less than what Turner Field could seat.

The universal truth remains: arrive early.

And what of the Eastern Division? What about wild card chances? Do the Braves, for Pete’s sake, have a chance to win the darn thing?

One big question is whether or not the Nationals can find a chemistry to match their talent. Another is if the Mets have enough healthy starters to put their promising rotation in full use. The Marlins and Phillies are a shambles, and a third-place finish is easily a goal for the Braves.

Most pundits see the Braves as a near-miss team, both as a wild card entry and as a .500 team. Acquiring Brandon Phillips is very much a positive in the short term, but the Braves will thrive or flounder based on how strong their pitching proves to be in 2017 under the guidance of new pitching coach Chuck Hernandez.

But as Cal Ermer would tell me every spring – right now, everyone’s undefeated.