Optimistic Braves believe rebuilding is finally behind them

ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Braves hardly sound like a team coming off a last-place finish.

These guys are talking playoffs.

''We've said it the last couple of years. We mean it this year,'' slugging first baseman Freddie Freeman said, his voice teeming with optimism. ''We feel like we can win the National League East.''

Atlanta was once one of baseball's most successful franchises, most notably setting a big league record with 14 straight division titles.

But the Braves fell on hard times after their last postseason appearance in 2013, going through a painful rebuilding process and three straight losing seasons.

A year ago, they lost 93 games and sank to the bottom of the standings for the first time since 1990. But a revamped roster and strong finish under interim manager Brian Snitker gives the team a surge of optimism heading into the first season at its new home, SunTrust Park.

''No one wanted to play us in September,'' Freeman said. ''We were just picking teams off at the end.''

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Here are some things to watch for this season:

GERIATRIC ROTATION: The Braves' hopes will depend largely on a pair of pitchers who are long past the usual baseball retirement age . Forty-three-year-old Bartolo Colon and 42-year-old R.A. Dickey make Atlanta the first team since the 1990 Texas Rangers (Nolan Ryan and Charlie Hough) to have two 40-something pitchers in the starting rotation. Colon is coming off an All-Star season with the New York Mets, while Dickey looked a lot shakier down the stretch for Toronto. The Braves are hoping to get at least one more season out of both, figuring they can't be much worse than what they sent out in 2016. Atlanta went through 16 starting pitchers and didn't have anyone with more than nine wins.

SLUGGING LINEUP: The Braves got a huge offensive boost when Matt Kemp was acquired just before the trade deadline in a salary dump by the San Diego Padres. Kemp gave Atlanta a much-needed right-handed slugger to take the heat off first baseman Freddie Freeman, who bounced back from a slow start to bat .302 with 34 homers, 91 RBIs and a 30-game hitting streak that was longest in the majors. Kemp finished with 35 homers and 108 RBIs, giving the Braves one of the best 1-2 punches in the majors. ''It was the first move that you could just see we're trying to win,'' Freeman said. ''We were finally done trading people away. We were trading for people.'' The acquisition of second baseman Brandon Phillips adds even more pop to a href(equals)'https://apnews.com/29973a514d3945cd9f2fda6160f4ec5f/Revamped-lineup-gives-Braves-plenty-of-hope-heading-into-'17'a lineup that now looks dangerous from top to bottom/a.

SNITKER'S CHANCE: Snitker had pretty much given up on his hopes of becoming a big league manager. Then, at age 60, he became a href(equals)'https://apnews.com/01c29385eb424730afed5f7d622038c7/At-61,-'late-bloomer'-Snitker-savors-shot-as-Braves-manager'one of the oldest first-time skippers in big league history/a. Taking over on an interim basis after Fredi Gonzalez was fired, Snitker guided the Braves to a winning record over their final 97 games and earned a full-time job for 2017. It will be interesting to see how he and the team handle much-higher expectations.

NEW DIGS: After only two decades at Turner Field, the Braves are a href(equals)'https://apnews.com/9637da07bd4c455086d86b5663bfe498/Only-finishing-touches-remain-at-Braves'-SunTrust-Park'moving to the suburbs/a. Even though the decision to leave the heart of the city has been much debated in sprawling metro Atlanta, the team can expect at least a short-term boost in attendance and excitement at SunTrust Park. Just as important as the stadium is a mall-like development around it, complete with retail shops, restaurants, an office tower, apartments and a hotel. All that will surely improve the team's bottom line and clear the way for Atlanta to again become one of baseball's big-spending franchises.

ROOKIES TO WATCH: Dansby Swanson might go down as the key player in one of most lopsided trades in baseball history, a deal with Arizona that also landed outfielder Ender Inciarte in exchange for disappointing pitcher Shelby Miller. Swanson, a former No. 1 overall pick, was called up late last season and hit .302 with three homers and 17 RBIs. The shortstop goes into 2017 as the overwhelming favorite for NL rookie of the year after barely hanging on to his first-year status with 129 at-bats. Down on the much-improved farm, the Braves have a bunch of players poised to make an impact in the majors, including second baseman Ozzie Albies, third baseman Rio Ruiz and pitchers Sean Newcomb and Max Fried.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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For more AP baseball coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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