Braves’ World Series title is big target for NL East rivals

ATLANTA (AP) — The World Series championship signs are everywhere at the Atlanta Braves’ spring training home.

A championship flag flies in CoolToday Park’s left field in Venice, Florida. There are other reminders on the video board, atop the Braves’ dugout, outside the stadium and on prominent display in the clubhouse.

That’s just fine with left-hander Kyle Muller.

“Oh yeah!” Muller said. “When you accomplish something like that, you want that up there. … Being able to close it out last year, you want that anywhere.”

Muller paused and then added, “Anywhere and everywhere!”

The Braves followed their fourth consecutive NL East title with their first World Series championship since 1995, beating Houston in six games.

The core of the team returns, with a very notable exception. The Braves failed to re-sign first baseman Freddie Freeman when they balked at giving the 2020 NL MVP and popular team leader the sixth year that he instead received when he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Atlanta tried to fill the void by trading four top prospects to Oakland for Matt Olson, who at 28 is four years younger than Freeman. One day later, the team announced a $168 million, eight-year deal that keeps Olson in Atlanta at least through 2029. It is the largest contract in Braves history.

Soon after losing Freeman, the Braves signed former Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen to a one-year deal.

The Braves know they play in a tough division, with the Mets and Phillies making big offseason additions.

Reliever Tyler Matzek says those World Series signs will be motivation for other teams.

“I think it reminds us that we have a target on our back and we’re ready to defend that title this year,” Matzek said. I think we surprised a lot of people last year. I don’t think we surprised ourselves. We’re ready to show this year it wasn’t a fluke.”

NEW LOOK

Will Smith was one of baseball’s best closers with 37 saves last season, but he gladly accepted a set-up role to make room for Jansen, who had 38 saves with the Dodgers. Another addition to the bullpen is right-hander Collin McHugh, who can take a late-game role or pitch multiple innings.

The newcomers make the bullpen the team’s strength.

ON THE MEND

The Braves are being careful to avoid rushing the return of outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., who missed the second half of last season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Acuña is expected to return in May. There is a possibility he could be cleared to serve as the designated hitter before he plays in right field.

Among other key returners in the deep lineup are Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson.

ROOKIE TO WATCH

Right-hander Spencer Strider, 23, is considered a possible future closer. For this spring, he is a candidate for one of the final spots in the rotation. His fastball was clocked at 100 mph on Monday while throwing 2 1/3 innings without allowing a hit.

Strider quickly rose through four minor league stops last season before making his major league debut with two appearances with Atlanta.

OZUNA RETURNS

Marcell Ozuna is returning following his arrest last year on charges of aggravated assault after police officers said they witnessed him attacking his wife. He was placed on administrative leave during Major League Baseball’s investigation. He said he has completed a pretrial diversion program necessary to have the charges dropped.

Ozuna is expected to play more left field the first month of the season before settling in at designated hitter. Ozuna boosts the outfield depth while the Braves await Acuña’s return.

Ozuna hit .338 and led the NL with 18 homers and 56 RBIs in the shortened 2020 season, his first with Atlanta.

CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES

More championship proclamations await the Braves at Truist Park in Atlanta. The World Series banner will be unveiled when they open their season at home on April 7 against Cincinnati. Two nights later, players will receive their championship rings in a ceremony.

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