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Braves open camp with eyes on the prize

Atlanta will look to defend its NL East title in much-improved division
February 15, 2019

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If 2018 was the new 1991, the Braves can now hope their National League East rivals endure the same fate as the 1992 Dodgers.After finishing one game behind the young, upstart, worst-to-first Braves in the 1991 NL West race, the Dodgers added Tom Candiotti to

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If 2018 was the new 1991, the Braves can now hope their National League East rivals endure the same fate as the 1992 Dodgers.
After finishing one game behind the young, upstart, worst-to-first Braves in the 1991 NL West race, the Dodgers added Tom Candiotti to a rotation fronted by Orel Hershiser and acquired Eric Davis, who came home to Los Angeles to share the outfield with his childhood friend, Darryl Strawberry.
:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::
When the 1992 season concluded with the Braves eight games ahead of the second-place Reds and 35 games in front of the last-place Dodgers, there was no reason to focus on the fact re-signing Otis Nixon served as Atlanta's only significant move the preceding offseason.
Braves Spring Training information
"Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don't make," said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who welcomed pitchers and catchers to Spring Training on Friday before kicking into full gear next week with the team's first full-squad workout (Thursday) and game (Feb. 23 at the Mets in Port St. Lucie).
As the Braves open camp, they'll provide a glimpse of how much they have progressed since claiming an unexpected division crown last year. Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies will once again be in a lineup that has been enriched by the addition of Josh Donaldson, the former American League MVP Award winner who thus far arguably ranks as baseball's top free-agent signee.
After the Braves made this offseason's first significant splash by signing Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal, the expectation was there'd be at least one more significant addition to Atlanta's roster. But as the defending NL East champs remained relatively quiet over the past few months, their primary division threats -- the Mets, Phillies and Nationals -- strengthened their respective rosters with multiple significant acquisitions.
With the addition of Donaldson combined with the valuable experience Albies, Acuna, Mike Foltynewicz and other young core members gained last year, the Braves should be improved. But most prognosticators are still going to favor either the Nationals, Mets or Phillies, who may become the favorites if they land either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
"I think we are a big cause for [all of the activity in the NL East]," Freeman said. "We closed the gap so quickly with our rebuild and we have so many talented young guys. I feel like the other NL East teams had to do this. The Mets, Phillies and Nationals have definitely gotten better. There's no way around it. But we're still the defending champions and we're going to go out there and try to defend our title."
The Braves pursued elite closer Edwin Díaz, who ended up with the Mets, and they opted not to include the MLB-ready piece it would have taken to successfully end their pursuit of catcher J.T. Realmuto, who is now with the defensively upgraded Phillies. Atlanta also had interest in keeping Aníbal Sánchez, who will now join Patrick Corbin as a newcomer to the Nationals' strong rotation.
In other words, while protecting their affluent prospect pool, and shying away from the dollars and more importantly, the years sought by some free-agent fits, the Braves indirectly helped the Mets, Phillies and Nationals immediately improve.
Still, even if the Braves are back in the underdog role, there is comfort in having a lineup that consists of three MVP-caliber talents -- Donaldson, Freeman and Acuna -- and a rotation that could prove formidable if Foltynewicz builds on last year's success and at least one of the club's multiple high-ceiling pitching prospects takes a significant step forward.
With the addition of Donaldson and the only significant offseason loss being Sanchez, the Braves could take a step forward. Their challenge within the division will be more significant. But it's not like this same bunch hasn't already proven that what is discussed and prognosticated in the winter quickly fades as the inevitable uncertainties of a season take shape.
"What we accomplished last year, we just scratched the surface a little bit," Snitker said. "But when we won the division last year, that feeling we all felt, hopefully that fuels everything that we do from Day One until that last out is made in the season."

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.