Final spring training at Disney filled with expectation for Braves

Franchise says “so long” to the Mouse and “hello” to new house

It sits roughly 35 miles south of Sarasota, Florida, a sparkling, new $125-million baseball stadium that is under construction in the small town of North Port.

Its name? Those of you who venture to the Sunshine State every March for Major League spring training games will know it as CoolToday Park, thanks to a partnership with corporate America, and the Atlanta Braves will be its new tenants, starting in February of 2020.

The Braves recently began their 22nd and final spring training at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando. But this Grapefruit League circuit will include one glimpse of tomorrow—Atlanta will travel to North Port on March 24 for a game against the Tampa Bay Rays before the equipment trucks turn north and head back for the regular season.

“When complete, our new state-of-the-art facility will secure our long-term goal of creating a perfectly positioned and operational spring training facility for the next 30 years,” Braves vice chairman John Schuerholz told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The key word there is “perfectly positioned.” A desire to be closer to more teams’ training bases in Florida is a major part of this move. Teams—all of whom train in Florida or Arizona—travel by bus for these preseason exhibition games. Over time, clusters of teams have shifted locations and Atlanta found itself in relative Grapefruit League isolation in the middle of the Sunshine State. The last thing you need is to wear your players out on road trips before the real season even begins

The Braves signed a 20-year naming rights deal with CoolToday, which is an air-conditioning, heating, plumbing and electrical company in the Sarasota area. The new park is part of a 10,000-acre development called West Villages Florida.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL – March 2: The Atlanta Braves practice at Champion Stadium during spring training. (Photo by Patrick Duffy for Pouya Creative/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images) – Courtesy Atlanta Braves

Atlanta, which is coming off a 90-win season and National League East Division title, has trained at Disney since 1998. Prior to that, the team called West Palm Beach, Florida, home from 1963 to 1997. That stadium, West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, was demolished in 2002 and a Home Depot now sits where players from Hank Aaron to Andruw Jones used to hit home runs.

So, this spring is certainly historic for a franchise that’s been looking to the future for several seasons now. But the future arrived early last summer, thanks to an unexpected division championship. That’s why 2019 brings high expectations—maybe not from the national media, which has focused the bulk of its offseason attention on the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies, both of whom dipped heavily into the free agent markets to improve their teams.

And a portion of Atlanta’s fan base has lowered expectations, too, having expressed frustration with general manager Alex Anthopoulos for not being a high bidder for free agents like ex-Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, etc.

However, fans’ memories fade with time. The Braves were actually the first team to make a free-agent splash after the season ended, signing third baseman Josh Donaldson to the largest one-year contract in baseball history, a $23-million deal. Donaldson’s power-hitting presence in the No. 2 hole in Atlanta’s lineup is going to add quite a dimension ahead of No. 3 hitter Freddie Freeman. Surrounding those two, manager Brian Snitker has options. National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr., considered the game’s top young five-tool talent, will make this a threesome in the order, either as the leadoff hitter (which he was last year) or as the No. 4 hitter.

If Snitker goes the latter direction, he can use the speedy Ender Inciarte as the leadoff hitter. If he leaves Acuna at the top of the order—leaving opposing pitchers to face Acuna-Donaldson-Freeman in the first inning—then veteran Nick Markakis could likely return to the No. 4 hole. Markakis, whose four-year deal expired after last season, returned to Atlanta on a one-year, team-friendly $4 million contract just weeks ago. The Atlanta native and former Georgia Tech standout enjoys having his mom and dad in the stands at SunTrust Park every night, not to mention his kids and wife.

If young middle infielders Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies continue to improve, Atlanta’s batting order could be its most dangerous in years. Because, its bench definitely will be. Last year’s third baseman, Johan Camargo, will be a super-utility player. A natural shortstop, Camargo can play all over the field. They’re even teaching him the outfield in spring training in order to give Markakis, who played all 162 games last season, more days off this summer. Charlie Culberson is another utility player who will continue to help in multiple positions. Catchers Tyler Flowers and back-again Brian McCann (the team’s other free agent signing) will try to be as formidable as the Flowers-Kurt Suzuki combo was. Suzuki signed with the Nationals in the offseason, the lone starter to depart.

Atlanta Braves during 2019 spring training. Photo by Kevin D. Liles for the Atlanta Braves

But whether 2019 tops 2018 will ultimately—no surprise here—hinge on pitching. Atlanta’s top four spots in its rotation appear set with Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran. The fifth spot will go to one of the many talented young arms in the organization, most likely Touki Toussaint, Max Fried or a slimmed-down Luiz Gohara. Mike Soroka would have been the top candidate, but continued shoulder issues delayed his spring workouts. If Fried or Toussaint don’t make the rotation, it’s likely they’ll continue to sharpen their skills in Atlanta’s bullpen like they did during the Braves’ NL Division Series loss against the Dodgers last October.

The health of bullpen closer Arodys Vizcaino is crucial. So is the return to form of young right-handed relievers Dan Winkler and Shane Carle, who had excellent seasons but fatigued down the stretch and were left off the postseason roster. They will join veteran Darren O’Day, who came over with Gausman from Baltimore at the trade deadline last year, but was recovering from an injury, along with Chad Sobotka. Lefties A.J. Minter, Jesse Biddle, Jonny Venters and Sam Freeman will vie for spots, as well. The bullpen competition will be fun to watch in the coming weeks.

The lone coaching change Atlanta made was the firing of pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and hiring of former Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz. Philadelphia let the highly regarded Kranitz, 60, go after last season only to keep his assistant, the younger Chris Young, from bolting for another job. Kranitz’s first mission—limit the over-abundance of walks that plagued Atlanta staff last season. Its 635 walks in 2018 were the second-most in MLB behind the Chicago White Sox.

And so it begins, the final year with the big mouse and the happy-go-lucky duck just a hop, skip and a jump from the centerfield wall. But times change, especially for a proud franchise that has been rebuilding a roster, constructing a new preseason home and dreaming about its first World Series title since 1995.

Soon, Snitker’s guys will step onto the field at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon, March 28, to start the regular season and Atlanta’s relationship with Disney will be history. The team only hopes the 2019 season will be, too. H&A

Steve Kirk

Steve Kirk

A sports writer and editor for 25-plus years, Steve’s career includes stints at The Birmingham News, Florida Times-Union, The (Columbia, S.C.) State and Birmingham Post-Herald. A native of Huntsville, Alabama, he lives in the Atlanta area.
Steve Kirk

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