There is no down time around SunTrust Park. It’s crunch time. The soon-to-be new home to the Atlanta Braves is less than 50 days away from opening its doors.
Inside the park, signage is being added to the stadium sections. And the dirt below the infield and outfield grass is awaiting the laying of the natural turf. Despite holding less people than their former home, Turner Field, SunTrust Park promises to be one of the best venues in Major League Baseball.
And Atlanta is doing its part to ensure they have one of the better teams to fill that venue during the dog days of summer.
Currently 460 miles away at the Disney Wide World of Sports, the Braves are just a few days into spring training. And there is real optimism around the organization that Atlanta can compete for a National League East title in 2017.
The optimism comes after an offseason where the Braves added veteran depth to go along with one of the youngest and most talented rosters in the majors. A roster that closed out 2016, which ended with a last-place finish, by winning 18 of 28.
The strong finish earned interim manager Brian Snitker, who took over in May after a 9-28 start, full-time duties. With Snitker, the Braves went 59-65 while undergoing plenty of change.
Young talent was brought up from the minors to gain big-league experience. Among them was infielder Dansby Swanson, a Marietta, Ga. native and former No. 1 overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Swanson came just one at-bat short in 2016 of being eligible for the Rookie of the Year, meaning he’s eligible this season. If he can stay healthy, many believe it’s his award to lose.
The 22-year-old slashed .302/.361/.442 in 38 games with the Braves while also showcasing his promising glove at shortstop. He was worth roughly 1-fWAR over that 38-game sample. There is little doubt he’s going to become a cornerstone of Atlanta’s success for many years to come alongside All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman.
The Braves also added veteran help midway through last season, acquiring Matt Kemp from San Diego. The former All-Star slashed .280/.336/.519 with 12 home runs in just 56 games with Atlanta. He would slug 35 total between the Braves and San Diego, his highest total since 2011. Kemp will undoubtedly start in left field when the 2017 season begins. The ’11 MVP runner-up may be a shell of his former self, but if he carries over from how he closed 2016, look out.
Atlanta also agreed on a five-year extension with centerfielder Ender Inciarte, who in his first season with the Braves slashed .291/.351/.381 with 24 doubles, seven triples and 16 stolen bases. And he continued to dazzle crowds with his defensive play. Obligatory warning about defensive metrics, but they really like Inciarte.
Rotation-wise, more veteran help was added through signing R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colón. Although both pitchers are over the age of 40, Dickey and Colón still have much to offer the Braves, who also feature All-Star Julio Teheran in the rotation. Dickey, 42, is known for his knuckle ball and is coming off a season in 2016 where he finished with a 4.42 ERA with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Colón, 43, spent the past three seasons with the New York Mets. He would post his best in ’16, finishing with a 15-8 record and a 3.43 ERA. Colón is the definition of stability. In each of his past four seasons, he has started in over 30 games and logged 190-plus innings.
Just a few days before training camp, the Braves added another pivotal piece to their lineup: 15-year veteran Brandon Phillips. Acquired in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds, Phillips is a .275/.320/.421 career hitter. He’s notched 334 doubles, 197 home runs and 198 stolen bases. And over the past two seasons, Phillips has maintained a solid average (.293) despite leaving more to be desired in regards to getting on base (.324). He still provides solid defensive aid, with youngster Jace Peterson likely serving as a backup. The only major hole on the Braves roster is at catcher. But it’s one that seems to have been addressed just a few weeks ago with Kurt Suzuki.
The Braves hope that by adding some veteran help, they can compete for the division. In their first within a new park, no less. But with high expectations for the Mets and Washington Nationals, it’s going to be far from easy.