Optimism ‘legit feeling’ for Braves after strong finish to last season

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — It’s real, and from where Brian Snitker is sitting, it’s spectacular.

The Atlanta Braves ended 2016 with plenty of momentum, winning 20 of their last 30 games, and in all going 37-35 after the All-Star break. Optimism, after back-to-back seasons of 93 or more losses, is in the air as pitchers and catchers reported Tuesday to Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex — and it’s not just the annual rites of spring type stuff.

“For me, it’s legit,” said Snitker, the Braves lifer who had the interim manager tag removed after last season’s run. “I think our club, what we did and what we accomplished and how we ended and going into this year, it’s a legit feeling.”

The power of positive thinking is certainly aided by the second-half production from the likes of first baseman Freddie Freeman — .323/.433/.634 — center fielder Ender Inciarte — 125 wRC+ — and left fielder Matt Kemp — .374 wOBA — the success of Dansby Swanson (.302/.361/.442 in 38 games) and the highs from All-Star Julio Teheran — 3.2 WAR — and Mike Foltynewicz and his 11 starts of two or fewer runs.

But it’s also tied to the big-name veterans Atlanta has added in the offseason.

A revamped rotation brings in Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, along with Jaime Garcia with the intent of allowing a heralded and deep group of prospects more time to develop. It also takes pressure off a taxed bullpen that just threw the most innings (567 1/3 in franchise history). Then, there was the surprising move to land three-time All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips with Sean Rodriguez out indefinitely and needing shoulder surgery.

“I just thought last year when I played against (the Braves) toward the end of the year, watching the lineup and the defense and the excitement, I had a good feeling about this ball club playing against them,” said Garcia, who the Braves acquired from the Cardinals in December for prospects John Gant, Chris Ellis and Luke Dykstra.

“Then I saw how they were going about it with the signings, guys like Sean Rodriguez and (Colon and Dickey) and the talent they have …I was keeping up with that and then when the trade happened, I was very excited.”

Granted, in Colon and Dickey the Braves have two 40-somethings, but between them they have a combined three seasons of less than 190 innings since 2011. While Garcia has started 30 or more games just twice in six years, the left-hander, when healthy, has eaten up 160 or more innings three times.

Phillips may not be able to return to the form that produced four straight seasons of 100-plus wRC+ and three double-digit defensive runs saved years, but he’s coming off consecutive years with at least 11 home runs and a .291 batting average.

In Braves history, three second basemen have had seasons with numbers equal to or greater than those: Martin Prado (2009 and ’10), Marcus Giles (2003 and ’05) and Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (1928).

“He’s still a really good player,” Snitker said. “He’s still one of those guys I hated to see come up. He’s dangerous and the guy, for me, always just marveled at how easy he played the game. … He just further legitimizes our lineup and lengthens it.”

Whether it can result in the Braves, who PECOTA has projected at winning 77 games and who face 100/1 odds to win the World Series (six teams have a worse chance per Bovada), defying expectations will have to wait.

For now, hope rides with the success to close out 2016, the buzz of new faces, and those chomping at the bit to get back to work.

While Tuesday was the official reporting date for pitchers and catchers, a number of the every day position players were already at camp.

“It was amazing (Monday) at 9:30 (a.m.) the entire group was out here, stretch(ing), running, throwing, a couple guys threw pens and hitting,” Snitker said. “It was good to see. A lot of guys anxious and excited.”

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.