LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Braves have gone through more changes than the Alabama and Falcons coaching staffs combined. They have worn more faces than Johnny Depp.
Just two players off the 2014 opening day roster are cavorting with the team in spring 2017 – Julio Teheran and Freddie Freeman. Only three others – Nick Markakis, Jace Peterson and Jim Johnson – were part of the opening day 25 just two seasons ago.
Constants are hard to find in such an environment, but the search is very much worth it.
One of the enduring pleasures of watching this team has been paying witness to the growth of its first baseman from quiet youngster to full-throated leader.
The Braves chose well in making Freeman their indispensable player while otherwise turning over the roster like a farmer tilling the soil. Beyond his production on the field, Freeman, still just 27, has evolved into the kind of smart, personable presence who sets just the right tone for a team. He has developed into a dependable point man for others to follow into the future.
Which leads us to the opening days of spring, 2017.
For Freeman’s part, he didn’t seem interested in reporting to camp without first issuing a message that was the equivalent of a verbal bro-hug to every Braves fan.
“Optimism in this camp is off the charts right now,” Freeman announced. “A lot of people still aren’t picking us. I think we’re going to be right there in September playing meaningful baseball.”
Of course, everyone talks like that in spring. Even the Braves were sounding confident before winning 67 and 68 games the last two seasons.
But asked if the optimism feels more genuine this spring, Freeman quickly answered, “It definitely does. I think maybe the last couple years we’ve just been saying it and this year we actually mean it.
“When you have the rotation like we have now and the competition for the fifth spot – usually it has been competition for three, four or five spots – it’s a big thing this year. It’s very genuine. It starts with the coaching staff. Everybody’s happy, ready to go, excited, it rubs off on us.
“A lot of people look at the 68 wins and say they had a pretty bad year (in 2016), which overall wasn’t very good. Everybody in this clubhouse and you guys know what was going on the last couple months (the 20-10 finish), and that excites me.”
A whole bunch of best-case scenarios have to play out in order for this team to mount a major surprise – too many, I’d argue, to justify the belief that these Braves will be a postseason factor. But there will be time enough to do forensics on the flaws later.
Suspend disbelief for the moment. Freeman, the Braves mouthpiece, is on a roll:
“There is no limit (to what this season can be), in my opinion. I think we have a real good shot. Obviously everyone comes into this wanting to win. That’s going around this clubhouse. The way we finished last year and all the new guys we brought in – this whole team is new and exciting. We got young guys, got veteran guys. Got guys who came up last year that got their feet wet and are only going to take off more (like Dansby Swanson). Matt (Kemp, who has Freeman’s back in the lineup) looks great. Everybody is doing good and looking good.
“I haven’t had a winning record in three years, and I want to get back. When you first come up and you’re in the playoffs the first couple years and all of a sudden you take a hiatus for a few years, that itch and that drive is strong. I think that’s what everyone feels around here. We want to get the Atlanta Braves back to how they were in the 1990s and 2000s.”
And, now, he’s a historian, too.