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Atlanta Braves

Braves look to build momentum moving into new ballpark

LAKELAND, FL - MARCH 15: Brandon Phillips (4) and Freddie Freeman (5) fo the Braves are all smiles after scoring during the spring training game between the Atlanta Braves and the Detroit Tigers on March 15, 2017 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — One word the Atlanta Braves are not using this spring is “contender.” However, a word they are more loathe to use is “rebuilding.”

While the Braves aren’t ready to proclaim darkhorse status in the National League East after finishing last in the division a year ago, they have hopes of at being a much more representative club.

One player who has been impressed by what he has seen so far in spring training is R.A. Dickey, the 42-year-old knuckleballer who signed a one-year, $8 million contract in the offseason.

“I learned a long time ago in this game to not make predictions but I do feel that most of us play up to our pedigree then it could be a special season,” Dickey said. “I know a lot of people on the outside see us as pretty low on the totem pole and that’s understandable.

“I like what I have seen so far this spring. We might not finish as low on that totem pole as people think.”

The Braves signed Dickey and 43-year-old right-hander Bartolo Colon as free agents over the winter and traded for St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia to bolster the rotation.

Adding a pair of veterans in left fielder Matt Kemp and second baseman Brandon Phillips to the lineup along with rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson since last July has made the offense more formidable.

Winning 30 of their final 50 games to finish last season gave the Braves an infusion of confidence.

“There is no question that we’re going to score more runs this year,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “When I look at our batting order from top to bottom, I can’t help but be excited.”

The biggest excitement in the Braves’ organization is about their farm system, which is generally considered the best in the game.

While Swanson graduated to the major leagues last season, he retained his rookie eligibility and figures to be a strong candidate for NL Rookie of the Year. Second baseman Ozzie Albies and left-hander Sean Newcomb will begin the season at Triple-A Gwinnett but are likely to make their major-league debuts later in the year.

In getting back to their pitching roots that enabled the franchise to win a record 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, the Braves have high hopes for three teenagers who will begin the season at the Class-A level — left-hander Kolby Allard and right-handers Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson.

Yet while the future looks bright, the Braves want to be competitive this season as they move into SunTrust Park in suburban Cumberland, Ga. The franchise has gotten the usual bump in ticket sales that comes with opening a new stadium but they also want to retain those fans beyond 2017.

“It’s not lost on us we have to deliver two things at once,” Braves president of business Derek Schiller said. “We have to make sure the baseball environment at this new ballpark has everything to offer, and I believe will satisfy even the most discerning baseball fans. Then we also have to deliver a very good baseball team.”

The players also feel an urgency to improve after going 68-93 last season and 67-95 in 2016

“It doesn’t feel like a rebuild,” said the 32-year-old Kemp, a two-time All-Star. “I hope it’s not. I want to win baseball games. I feel we can go out there and win, especially with these veteran guys we’ve brought in. I think everyone in this (clubhouse) thinks we’re good enough to win games now, not next year or two years from now.”

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