Freddie Freeman believes the Phillies, Nationals and Mets made so many moves this offseason because they wanted to catch up to the 2018 NL East champion Braves.
If hype matters, those division rivals already passed the Braves. For Atlanta, repeating as division champion may be even more difficult than their surprise title last season.
Atlanta faces new challenges from the division’s impressive wave of new talent, led by the Phillies’ Bryce Harper, the Nationals’ Patrick Corbin and the Mets’ Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano. Many preseason projections list the Braves as underdogs in the division.
Freeman just wants to remind fans the Braves haven’t gone away.
“The East is crazy,” Freeman said. “It’s going to be a fight to the end. A lot of people are talking about everybody else and they forget we won 90 games and got better.”
The Braves gave third baseman Josh Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP, a one-year, $23 million deal . Atlanta signed catcher Brian McCann for one year and re-signed right fielder Nick Markakis.
The Donaldson signing came soon after the World Series. After that, the Braves were mostly quiet. Impatient fans kept hoping general manager Alex Anthopoulos would make more news.
Freeman doesn’t agree with the perception the Braves didn’t do enough to keep pace in the division. He said the perception would be different if the team’s few additions came later in the offseason.
Freeman, who finished fourth in the 2018 NL MVP voting, may hit between Donaldson and Ronald Acuna, last season’s NL rookie of the year. Manager Brian Snitker has the option of using Acuna as the cleanup or leadoff hitter .
The lineup should be strong if Donaldson can remain healthy and Markakis can come close to his 2018 first-half production.
Ultimately, the Braves’ hopes may rest on a rotation which has caused concern in spring training.
Some other things to know about the Braves’ outlook:
FOR OPENERS, IT’S TEHERAN — AGAIN:
Atlanta enters the season without All-Star right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, who is bothered by a sore elbow. A healthy Foltynewicz would have been the starter for the March 28 opener at Philadelphia. Instead, Snitker announced Julio Teheran will make his sixth straight opening day start. It’s a vindication of sorts for Teheran, who was left off the postseason rotation last year. Foltynewicz may miss at least two weeks .
Atlanta is counting on a bounce-back season from Donaldson, 32, who had shoulder and calf injuries last season and played only a combined 52 games with Toronto and Cleveland. McCann, 35, isn’t really a new face. He played his first nine seasons with the Braves before three seasons with the Yankees and two with Houston. He’ll share the catching job with Tyler Flowers, who similarly split time with Kurt Suzuki the last two years.
“What Suk and I had was special, and I think Mac and I have that, too,” Flowers said.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Right-handers Touki Toussaint or Kyle Wright could make the rotation to open the season. Mike Soroka may have been near the top of the list of rookie candidates to win a starting job before he suffered a shoulder injury. He also had a shoulder problem which ended his 2018 season.
Donaldson brings more than a powerful right-handed bat. He also brings a reputation for adding energy to a clubhouse, which shortstop Dansby Swanson says the Braves need.
“A lot of us are a little narrow, straight edge and he’s not necessarily that way, which is awesome because it provides more diversity, it provides a different perspective,” Swanson said, adding he hopes the new mix allows players to “really push each other in a different way than we have in years past, which is something I’m excited for just in this organization in general.”
SUPER UTILITY DUO
Donaldson adds depth to Atlanta’s bench. John Camargo, last season’s primary third baseman, becomes a super-utility player. Like Charlie Culberson, Camargo can play several positions in the infield and outfield.
Associated Press correspondent Dick Scanlon contributed to this story.