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Braves prospects finding camp a welcoming place

While I consider myself to be more old-school than most of the past generation or two when it comes to baseball etiquette and unwritten rules and such, I never understood the logic of making prospects and rookies feel more nervous or intimidated than they naturally would at spring training or when first called to the majors.

The Braves and some other teams apparently have enough players and team officials who see it similarly because there’s been a noticeable change in how young players are treated. It’s been particularly noticeable this year at Braves spring training, where there are more elite-level prospects in camp than this or almost any organization ever had.

“Younger guys are coming up, and if they’re good enough to play at this level, you want to make them comfortable so they can continue to be good at this level and help the team win,” veteran Braves reliever Peter Moylan said, putting it succinctly.

Rather than making talented and highly valued youngsters – a bunch are ranked among baseball’s top 100 prospects -- feel uncomfortable or making them wonder how they should do this or that without offending anyone, established players are making them feel welcome and letting them be themselves, treating them more as equals than as plebes. 

Which, if you think about it, makes a lot of sense because many of these kids will be pivotal to the team’s fortunes sooner than later. Some of them this season.

Baseball in general has been getting younger, and the Braves in particular are going to need plenty of fresh-faced pitchers and position players to carry much of the load as this rebuilding team attempts to regain its status as one of the premier teams in the National League.

It only makes sense to make them feel comfortable, where they can think about things that matter – like improving – rather than have them worrying about silly stuff because of some tired unwritten rules about making sure they know their place. Their place is in the lineup or the rotation or the bullpen, so don’t treat them like they’re your annoying little brother in the clubhouse and then expect them to perform at a high level to help your team win major league games.

Some of the prospects in their first major league camp said they’re more comfortable than they thought they might be.

“First and foremost, I think a lot of the guys that are here are young, myself included,” said 20-year-old pitcher Mike Soroka, mature beyond his years and ranked as the No. 27 prospect in Baseball America’s Top 100. “There’s a lot of us it’s our first big-league camp; if we’re the youngest team in the league I wouldn’t be surprised. 

“So just from that standpoint, I understand it. The veterans in this clubhouse have made it real easy to fit in. But the message is still the same, that you’ve got to go about your business the right way.”

Reliever Sam Freeman, 30, has bounced around baseball a while and notices the difference, especially this spring in Braves camp.

“I mean, it’s safe to say a lot of older guys in here have been in that position (being uncomfortable at the start of their career),” he said. “Speaking for myself, it was like walking on egg shells whenever I was first coming up. It was like a whole bunch of rules to where it’s like if you didn’t have anybody that would come up and tell you, like, you’re going to break them and they’re going to look at you crazy. 

“Hopefully everybody feels comfortable in here to where they’re not walking on egg shells.”

Thirteenth-year veteran right fielder Nick Markakis, a quiet but effective leader-by-example type, is old-school baseball. No doubt about it. But he’s also a big team-chemistry guy who understands the importance of youth on a rebuilding team and likes the feel of this squad.

“I like our mix. We’ve got veterans, and we’ve got really young guys,” Markakis said. “We’ve got good veterans to learn from. That’s what you need, a good balance of old and young. I’ve seen teams where they’re all veterans and all young, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. 

“The perfect balance is that old and young, and you’ve got to have the good old with the good young, and that’s what we have here. It’s coming along, it’s a process, it’s not an overnight thing. And it’ll be here before you know it.”

It should be noted, what I’m talking about regarding better treatment of the young players has nothing to with hazing, which is idiotic, archaic and has fortunately fallen out of favor with most teams. Well, other than the silly ritual of making rookies dress up in outlandish outfits for the plane ride on a late-season road trip, a practice that continues and for some reason still amuses the easily amused.

No, what I’m talking about is daily interaction with teammates, veterans or others no longer jumping a kid’s case for not being aware of some unwritten rule about where they can be in the clubhouse or when -- all sorts of little things that the newcomer couldn’t reasonably be expected to know about until he committed the faux pas and got scolded for it.

“It’s not like back in the day where you’d have all the young guys hang out together and all the older guys hang out together,” said Moylan, who is back for his third stint with the Braves after two seasons with the Royals. “It’s more of a group than just individuals. I saw it in Kansas City last year, too. I guess it’s the new normal – you’re not treating rookies the way they used to be treated, which I think is great.

“I mean, when I got here I was a 27-year-old rookie and I felt uncomfortable the minute I walked in the clubhouse. But I think nowadays it’s about trying to make these guys feel as comfortable as possible instead of uncomfortable. You know, you used to get (expletive) for going in the training room, you used to get (expletive) for going in the weight room, you used to get (expletive) for sitting on the couch – you couldn’t do anything right. Now it’s more about, just do the right thing and you’re fine.”

That part of the equation has also been important for the spring-training harmony: The youngsters are being treated like equals, but they’re expected to act like professionals, like adults, not like punks or entitled bonus babies. And if the chemistry were to get thrown off by a few acting like punks or taking advantage of the situation, veteran players and coaches would be quick to set them straight.

That doesn’t seem like it’ll be an issue with these Braves, who have a lot of really young prospects who demonstrate an unusual degree of maturity. Doing the right thing is expected, and they seem to have embraced that.

“A bunch of those (veterans) have said, you do that you’ll get respect,” Soroka said. “As long as they know you’re here to play hard and be better every single day and take all these days as opportunities to get better. So I think just from there, it is a little easier (fitting in at camp) than I thought it was going to be.”

The evolution in how the Braves treat their younger teammates apparently came about organically rather than as a directive from team brass. 

Manager Brian Snitker is well-liked and appreciated by his players and makes it a point not to admonish them publicly or in front of their peers. He and new general manager Alex Anthopoulos have met with every player and told them where they stand and what’s expected of them. The straightforward approach goes a long way with players.

So does respect, and that’s a quality that Snitker has in abundance – he gives it and gets it. As do the team’s prominent players such as Markakis, Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte, and pitchers such as Moylan and newcomers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir, who regularly share their insights with the team’s young pitchers and prospects.

“At the end of the day I’m like, treat people the way you want to be treated,” Sam Freeman said. “If you’ve got dudes that you’re going to be counting on later on, you don’t want them coming up just, like, afraid to do anything. Again, having experienced that a little bit when I first came up, it was like, just the added anxiety – it was something that could have been avoided, something that I didn’t think was necessary. 

“I guess that’s the way it was at the time. But hopefully everybody in here feels comfortable to where they won’t have any extra anxiety and everything going on.”

Soroka, who could make his major league debut at some point in 2019, said he had an idea what to expect in his first camp. It’s been even better than he imagined.

“I had good talks with Chris Reitsma before I came down,” Soroka said, mentioning the former Braves reliever and Canada native who has coached many of that country’s up-and-coming pitchers. “As well as a little bit with Brandon McCarthy the last few days here. They see you in the weight room working hard, they see you out there busting your butt on PFPs (pitchers’ fielding practice) and stuff like that, it gets noticed. 

“And that’s all that really matters is that at the end of the day you’re here to help the Atlanta Braves hang banners again.”

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, beginning his second full season in the majors, likes what he’s seen in the clubhouse this spring.

“The vibe around everything has been pretty awesome,” he said. “Everyone has kind of been in tune with each other. I think the communication not only between us players but everybody else has been very clear, so that kind of allows everyone to operate freely within that sphere. There’s obviously lots of reasons for that, and we’re thankful for that.”

Asked if that started from the top, Swanson said, “Oh yeah. It always kind of starts from the top, and we’re just able to continue that trend. But you do have a good mix of veteran guys as well as young players. When you can combine the two with the direction from up top, everything seems to flow well.”

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About the Author

David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.