LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- They’re a baseball team disguised as a sales convention. Or maybe a high school reunion.
They’re the newly renovated Atlanta Braves. And they walk around all day wearing T-shirts that read, “Hello, my name is ...”
“They’re great,” the new hitting coach in town, Kevin Seitzer, was saying of those shirts on Tuesday afternoon, “because I don’t know anybody. But the guys who have been here, they don’t know a lot of people, either.”
So how did the Braves become so unrecognizable, even to themselves? Well, it had something to do with this:
They made nine trades this winter. Yeah, nine. They signed seven major league free agents. Yeah, seven. They signed 21 minor league free agents. Yeah, 21. And they tossed in one waiver claim and a Rule 5 draft pick, just for fun.
So a few weeks ago, their closer, Craig Kimbrel, had an inspired idea: T-shirts for everybody.
“We have a lot of new guys in camp,” Kimbrel said Monday, wearing a shirt that had the moniker “Dirty Craig” scrawled on his name card. “Guys didn’t know each other. I didn’t know a lot of guys myself. So I just figured we’d have some fun. You go to conferences, and everybody has their stickers on: `Hello, my name is.’ So I figured that would be a way for everybody to get to know each other.”
He then approached his fellow unofficial Face of the Franchise, Freddie Freeman, and, by Freeman’s account, cajoled him into splitting the cost of the shirts.
“He was the one that thought of it, and he’s making me pay for it,” Freeman complained Monday, not real seriously. “That’s a bad deal, right? That’s not fair.”
“Just say you’re his financial backer,” Jonny Gomes instructed him from across the clubhouse. “That sounds better.”
“You know, I wanted to pay for the whole thing, but then I saw that he was getting all the credit,” Freeman deadpanned. “So that makes no sense. So throw me in there, will you? Get one of my quotes in there. My money’s on the shirt. It just wasn’t my idea.”
Well, if it’s any consolation, he’s now leading Kimbrel in quotes in this story, two to one. And that lead is about to expand considerably, because Freeman also admitted that “I actually used it today. I think it was Eury Perez who I didn’t really know. And Eury walked by, and he had his name on his shirt. So I was able to say hi to him.”
On one level, the Braves who survived the rebuilding purge are still slightly stunned by the massive scope of the changes unleashed by their front office this winter. On the other, at least they’ve found a fun way to deal with it -- with a laugh. And a shirt.
“It’s a cool deal,” Freeman said. “I think everyone’s having fun with it. And hopefully we won’t have to do it again next year.”
Freeman and Kimbrel: Is this what they signed up for?
It was just one year ago, one spring training ago. Freeman and Kimbrel weren’t signing T-shirts back then. They were signing long extensions, buying into a future they had no idea would include the sort of dramatic rebuilding effort they find themselves in the midst of now.
Freeman signed an eight-year, $135 million extension that was the longest contract in Braves franchise history. And Kimbrel agreed to a four-year, $42-million deal that was the richest deal in history for a non-free-agent closer.
So it would be understandable if they felt now that they were signing up for one thing and got another. But they’re steering clear of what could easily have turned into a messy spring controversy.
Asked Monday if he had any idea when he signed that his team might launch a rebuilding effort this extensive just a year later, Freeman replied: “Definitely not. Not this early. You’re always going to go through some changes, especially if you’re in an organization this long. But I don’t think anyone could imagine having half your 40-man turned inside-out one year into a deal.”
So Freeman said he met with Braves president John Schuerholz, president of baseball operations John Hart, assistant GM John Coppolella and manager Fredi Gonzalez before spring training, and came away satisfied that the organization was still trying to compete, both long term and short term.
“They wanted to talk to me, actually,” Freeman said. “It was kind of a cool thing -- bring me in, let me know what’s going on and what they’re thinking about. A lot of people are calling this year a rebuilding year. I definitely don’t think that. I think with our young guys who have gained another year of experience, with our veteran guys we brought in -- the Markakises, the Grillis, the Pierzynskis, the Jonny Gomes, I really and truly believe that we can compete.”
Kimbrel said he, too, had no idea a year ago that something like this was coming.
“No, I was buying into wanting to be here in Atlanta and win,” he said. “And I didn’t want to win just anywhere. I wanted to win here in Atlanta. And that hasn’t changed.”
So Kimbrel said he was grateful that he wasn’t one of the veteran players who got shipped out of town this winter. But he also knows that could change in July if this season takes a wrong turn.
“I made a commitment with the organization that I wanted to be here in Atlanta,” he said. “And them not trading me this offseason shows that they want me here as well. But you know, it is a business, so at any time, that can change. I think, as a player, anyone understands that aspect of the game. ... So when moves are made, they may not always be what you like. But it may be what’s best for the team that you’re on at the time.”
And on the eve of their team’s first spring training game, both Kimbrel and Freeman sound convinced the Braves are going to be better than advertised.
“I know a lot of people are going to not pick the Braves,” Freeman said. “But I think John Hart said it best about a week ago. He said the Braves can pick the Braves. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Two and a half months after having surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck, outfielder Nick Markakis said Monday he hopes to be cleared to begin baseball activities later this week. The Braves haven’t ruled out Markakis being ready for Opening Day, but they’ve laid out no timetable yet for his return. So stay tuned.
Markakis signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves this winter, a deal other teams have questioned as not fitting real well for a team in rebuilding mode. But Markakis says he knew what he was getting into.
“They communicated pretty well,” he said. “They let me know what their plans were. And I was OK with it, especially with the group of guys we’ve got here. But we’re still looking to compete this year. We’re still looking to go out there and do the things that we want to do.”
Was it really just one year ago that Jim Johnson was coming off back-to-back 50-save seasons for the Orioles? It’s hard to remember now, following a season in which Johnson staggered to a 7.09 ERA in 54 appearances for the A’s and Tigers.
But the Braves signed him to a one-year, $1.6 million deal this winter. And they’re incredibly upbeat about his chances of rebounding after a spring of working with pitching coach Roger McDowell, who was once a sinkerball machine much like Johnson.
“I’ve seen him throw [live] BP twice,” Gonzalez said. “And his sinker looks really good. I saw the videos of last year, and his fastball was moving sideways, back towards a right-handed batter. And now I see fastballs that are sinking to get depth. So that’s a good sign of him coming back to his form of back-to-back 50-save seasons.”
The next Alomar?
In theory, Jose Peraza’s ETA in Atlanta isn't until midseason at the earliest, and possibly even next year. But if you’ve noticed the Braves still have an opening at second base, as the manager has, you might not want to rule out a slightly earlier arrival for Keith Law’s 24th-ranked prospect in baseball.
Gonzalez called Peraza “a special guy” on Monday, and promised that his favorite 20-year-old phenom will get a ton of playing time this spring, at both second and shortstop, his natural position. He also dropped a bunch of eye-popping names he’s heard Peraza compared with by people who have seen him a lot.
“There were a couple of guys who dropped a 'Robbie Alomar’ [comparison],” Gonzalez said. “We’ve dropped Mickey Mantle. We’ve dropped Robin Yount. Those are all 19-year-old guys [who played in the big leagues as teenagers]. Al Kaline. All those guys are Hall of Famers, by the way, right?”
Obviously, Gonzalez wasn’t saying that Peraza is about to turn into the next Mantle. The guy did, after all, hit only two home runs (but stole 60 bases) in 469 at-bats last year in Class A and Double-A. The point is that the manager hasn’t ruled out the possibility he could be ready for the big leagues at an exceptionally young age.
Asked what kind of scenario could lead to Peraza making the Opening Day roster, Gonzalez laughed and quipped: “If I can convince the people in the front office.”
Fan friendliness at its finest
Finally, reliever Jason Grilli was on his way off the field and heading for the clubhouse Monday when he stopped to talk to a 4-year-old kid from Georgia -- and wound up providing a little boy with an experience he’ll never forget.
Grilli invited the boy, whose mother preferred to identify only with his first name, Carver, out onto the outfield grass at Champion Stadium for a game of catch. And when they were through, they both got a standing ovation.
“I love messing with the kids,” Grilli said afterward. “It resonates with me, because baseball is more than just going out there and playing the game. I was taught to love and respect it by my old man [former pitcher Steve Grilli]. And I’ve got two boys of my own. ...
“So I try to do fun things like that. As long as security doesn’t care, to me that’s what it’s about. ... There’s just so much made about the bad stuff [players] do. And there’s so much made about the money we make. But that, to me, is where it all starts. And that’s where it needs to stay. And I’m just passing along that love and respect. But it all comes from my dad, teaching me that. Just trying to pass it along from Steve Grilli.”