VENICE, Fla. – Braves manager Brian Snitker held court in front of a “2021 World Champions” banner, peaking occasionally at the nearby bullpen, where World Series hero Charlie Morton threw a side session. Around the corner, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Cristian Pache pulled up in matching, glitzy-gold SUVs and posed for a photo.
“It's like the first day of school," October star Tyler Matzek said.
With one notable absence: All-Star free agent Freddie Freeman.
Big leaguers filed into camps across Florida and Arizona on Sunday for the first official day of spring training following a 99-day lockout. Fans rejoiced over sights familiar and new — Astros ace Justin Verlander returning from injury, All-Star Marcus Semien fielding grounders in Rangers red and blue.
It's been over a decade since Freeman wasn't in Atlanta's camp, but the 2020 NL MVP remains a free agent — one reportedly being courted by the big-money Dodgers and Yankees. New York made its first post-lockout move, acquiring former AL MVP Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa from Minnesota for catcher Gary Sánchez and third baseman Gio Urshela.
Snitker texted Freeman shortly after the firewall preventing management from speaking with players dropped at the end of the lockout Thursday. He’s unsure what his former first baseman will do, and didn’t ask. He just wanted to speak to an old friend.
“I hadn’t talked to him since we left the parade,” Snitker said. "I just said, ‘Man, I can talk to you now.’
“I was just asking how family was. There was nothing professional or business or anything. Just checking in on him. Let’s face it, he’s going to be a good friend the rest of my life, regardless of professionally what happens.”
The Braves are coming out of the work stoppage with more uncertainty than most. Acuña has been rehabbing from a torn ACL, Morton is back on the mound after breaking his leg in the World Series opener and Mike Soroka is progressing after re-tearing his right Achilles tendon last summer.
“I’m ready,” Acuña said on his way into the clubhouse.
Not quite, but the Braves are pleased with his progress. The 2018 NL Rookie of the Year suffered a season-ending right knee injury last July and missed Atlanta’s October run.
Acuña has said he's eyeing a return to game action in May. The Braves haven't announced a timeline yet, but Snitker is encouraged by what he's heard and excited to see Acuña in action when workouts begin Monday.
“I know the reports are really good,” Snitker said. “I mean really good. I guess that he’s worked his rear off.”
Morton had a plate and several screws surgically placed in his leg after being hit by a 102 mph comebacker in Game 1 of the World Series — he threw 16 more pitches after that, saying Sunday “it wasn’t until the bone actually separated, like I actually felt separation of the bone, that’s when I was like, all right.”
The 38-year-old has resumed throwing and isn't far off track from his normal spring regimen, although he wanted to gauge his progress a little more before committing to being ready for opening day April 7.
Soroka, an All-Star in 2019, hasn't pitched since early in 2020 after tearing his Achilles tendon for the first time. He re-tore it last year during the rehab process. Snitker said he's progressing well and that doctors are encouraged by his recovery.
“I know he's excited about getting back down here and starting this thing up again,” Snitker said. “But I know a year ago today, he probably was, too.”
Verlander says he feels great following his first bullpen session at spring training.
The 39-year-old threw around 40 pitches in two simulated innings on the first day of Houston’s camp, a positive sign for the two-time Cy Young Award winner in his return from Tommy John surgery.
“I’m on cloud nine,” Verlander said.
Verlander, manager Dusty Baker and general manager James Click say they haven’t established a spring or regular-season workload expectation for the right-hander.
New York Mets owner Steve Cohen is unfazed by a new spending restriction in baseball’s labor contract that seems aimed directly as hits deep pockets.
The contract agreed to by owners and players last week includes a fourth threshold for the sport’s luxury tax system for teams that exceed $290 million in payroll. Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo referred to it as the “Cohen Tax” on Saturday.
Asked if his Mets would spend past the new threshold, Cohen said, “we probably will.”
“The way I describe it is that it’s better than a bridge being named after you or something like that," he added. "It’s still a lot of money to spend on a payroll. I don’t feel like it’s so confining that I can’t live with it.”
TWINS ARE IN
The Minnesota Twins took their first significant step toward restocking their starting pitching by acquiring right-hander Sonny Gray in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds included minor league right-hander Francis Peguero in the deal for Twins pitching prospect Chase Petty. The 18-year-old Petty was Minnesota’s first-round draft pick last year.
Gray will slot right in at the top of the rotation for the Twins. The 32-year-old Gray is a two-time All-Star and went 7-9 with a 4.19 ERA in 26 starts last season, his third with the Reds. This will be his 10th year in the major leagues.
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