BASEBALL 2016: Braves face bleak season but brighter future
ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Braves are looking forward to a shiny new stadium and the bounty of a replenished farm system.
First, they must get through 2016.
Coming off a 95-loss season, their worst in a quarter-century, the Braves are likely to endure another difficult year while slogging through a major rebuilding job.
New general manager John Coppolella has largely accomplished the goal of hoarding top young talent, including an impressive trade with Arizona that brought in 2015 No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson. A farm system that ranked among the worst in baseball just a year ago is now considered one of the best.
The big league roster is filled with holes, however, from a woefully thin rotation to a glaring lack of power hitters.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez tried to sound optimistic.
''My expectation is for us to always be a playoff team, to get in there somehow,'' he said. ''A lot of stuff's got to go right for us to do that, obviously.''
Back to reality.
The once-powerhouse franchise is clearly aiming toward a return to contention in 2017, when the Braves move into their new suburban home, SunTrust Park.
''I just know that last year what we went through was the start of a process, and this year we're in the second year of that process,'' catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. ''I'm sure there are people around who don't believe we're any good.''
Some things to watch for during what figures to be another long season in Atlanta:
FAR CRY FROM MADDUX, GLAVINE & SMOLTZ: During their heyday, the Braves were known for a starting rotation that included three Hall of Famers. Not anymore. Opening-day starter Julio Teheran is the only one to make more than 20 big league starts last season, and even he's coming off a disappointing performance (11-8 with a 4.04 ERA). Bud Norris had a miserable showing with Baltimore and San Diego, going a combined 3-11 with a 6.72 ERA. The Braves are hoping he can regain a semblance of the form that made him a 15-game winner just two years ago, and that Matt Wisler can build on a promising rookie season (8-8, 4.71). After those three? Who knows? Expect a revolving-door rotation as Gonzalez looks for the hot hand.
CLOSER BY COMMITTEE: Arodys Vizcaino has the stuff to be a dominant closer, which he showed after taking over the job late last season. Jason Grilli is also in the mix after recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon. He had 24 saves along with 45 strikeouts in 33 2-3 innings before going down just before the All-Star break. If the 38-year-old Grilli is healthy, he figures to get some save chances as well - if for no other reason than to enhance his trade value.
LOOKING FOR POP: The Braves will start the season with only two players who hit more than 10 homers last season, and one of those is backup outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who returns to the team where he began his career as a heralded prospect more than a decade ago. While Francoeur is a reminder of better times in Atlanta, Freddie Freeman (18 homers, 66 RBIs) is the only established power threat the Braves will send out every day this season. Atlanta is counting on a couple of Cuban defectors, third baseman Adonis Garcia and left fielder Hector Olivera, to add some pop to the lineup.
DOWN ON THE FARM: In keeping with the rebuilding theme, some of the most intriguing players in the organization will start the season in the minors. Swanson and slick-fielding Ozzie Albies look like the double-play combination of the not-too-distant future, while outfielder Mallex Smith was so impressive during spring training it's going to be hard to keep him out of the majors much longer. The Braves also have plenty of young arms waiting in the wings, including Aaron Blair, Tyrell Jenkins, Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims.
TURNER FIELD FINALE: The Braves will play their final season at the Ted, which didn't even last through three presidential administrations. The 20-year-old stadium was the site of the 1999 World Series and numerous playoff games during the first half of its existence, but it will likely go out with a whimper. Except at the concession stands, where the team is planning to sell some truly outlandish fare in this farewell year - including the $26 ''Burgerizza,'' a 20-ounce hamburger topped with cheese and bacon, and served between two pepperoni pizzas!
AP freelance writer Dick Scanlon in Kissimmee, Florida contributed to this report.
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