Welcome to the Spring of Love.
It may not rival the Summer of Love that sprang from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in 1967, but that’s probably a good thing. There seems to be enough peace, love and happiness this spring for everyone.
At least that’s the vibe that’s emanating from the Braves spring training complex.
To a certain extent this is normal. The sport of baseball retains its unique position on the calendar, so season preparations coincide with the budding of spring, when anything seems possible.
But the Braves have advanced beyond the standard “This could be the year!” eagerness that pervades most of baseball, at least until the first meaningful games are lost. For the Braves, this really could be the year.
Their biggest move was announced last Friday. Manager Brian Snitker received a contract extension that will keep him in the Braves dugout for three more seasons, with an option for a fourth.
More important, Snitker will remain in the Braves clubhouse, where he has won over the heart of the team. While it’s impossible to imagine a manager who supported his players to a larger extent than Bobby Cox, Snitker certainly garnered that trait from one of baseball’s best managers.
The love which Snitker displays for his players cannot be discounted. The family atmosphere he has created, where 25 large egos subordinate to team unity, remains the primary reason Snitker’s teams have been so successful.
That thought was echoed by Braves President of Baseball Operations Alex Anthopoulos last Friday.
“I am thrilled that Brian will continue to lead our club, on the field and in the clubhouse,” Anthopoulos told MLB.com. “Three consecutive division titles speak to the impact of Brian and his staff, and we are pleased that he will continue to guide our club through 2023.”
Last year might have been Snitker’s greatest managerial exercise. On top of all the other issues swirling around the game, he led a team that lost four of its five projected starters right off the bat to within one game of the World Series.
And to think, back in 2016, when he replaced Fredi Gonzalez in May, almost no one thought he’d ever remove the interim tag from his title. But he turned that woeful, moribund bunch into a club that played hard to finish out the season. At a time when there was really nothing but pride to play for.
By the next season, he had veteran Nick Markakis shouting down executive John Hart in defense of his manager. And he had his best player, Freddie Freeman, lobbying for his return. The best by-product of John Coppolella’s inglorious egress, besides Anthopoulos taking over baseball operations, was Snitker remaining the manager. Snitker no longer cared to work for Coppolella.
Besides the trifecta of division titles, all Snitker has done is be voted National League Manager of the Year in 2018, lead the Braves to a win in a playoff series, and guide the team to a .578 winning percentage over the past three years, second in the NL to the Dodgers.
Numbers aside, all we needed to know about Snitker was exposed after his team won that first division title, when Snitker became so overcome with emotion that he could not speak. How can you not love a guy who cares that deeply about his team? More vital, how can his players not?
It’s those players, of course, who’ll determine this team’s fate, and Snitker will have plenty of good ones from which to choose. Who wouldn’t be optimistic gazing over this roster?
Anthopoulos had a fabulous offseason, jumping in the market early to acquire veteran pitchers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. They join Max Fried, who emerged as a true ace last year and Ian Anderson, who was too good to be true in his abbreviated debut.
Mike Soroka should return to form after his Achilles injury. We’ve seen flashes from Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and Huascar Ynoa. And don’t fret over the bullpen. Will Smith, Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek, Josh Tomlin and Grant Dayton return. But after his emergency start against the Dodgers, I’m most excited to have AJ Minter back.
And the lineup? Please. The return of Marcell Ozuna ensured that the Braves will have plenty of offense. Even if he turns a few flyballs into adventures. Besides, Christian Pache takes over in center, and he can cover a good portion of left as well.
It bodes quite well that Anthopoulos devoted many February hours to bringing in veterans to compete for spots on the bench. You’re in good shape when that’s your major concern.
Yes, everything’s seashells and balloons in North Port, Florida. Peace, love, and happiness everyone. Enjoy the Spring of Love.