Champion Braves open camp with Acuña, Morton but no Freeman

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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VENICE, Fla. — Braves manager Brian Snitker held court in front of a “2021 World Champions” banner, peaking occasionally at the nearby bullpen, where World Series hero Charlie Morton threw a side session. Around the corner, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Cristian Pache pulled up in matching, glitzy-gold SUVs and posed for a photo.

“It’s like the first day of school,” October star Tyler Matzek said.

With one notable absence: All-Star free agent Freddie Freeman.

Big leaguers filed into camps across Florida and Arizona on Sunday for the first official day of spring training following a 99-day lockout. Fans rejoiced over sights familiar and new – Astros ace Justin Verlander returning from injury, All-Star Marcus Semien fielding grounders in Rangers’ red and blue.

It’s been over a decade since Freeman wasn’t in Atlanta’s camp, but the 2020 NL MVP remains a free agent – and one reportedly being courted by the big-money Yankees and Dodgers.

Snitker texted Freeman shortly after the firewall preventing management from speaking with players dropped at the end of the lockout Thursday. He’s unsure what his former first baseman will do, and didn’t ask. He just wanted to speak to an old friend.

“I hadn’t talked to him since we left the parade,” Snitker said. “I just said, `Man, I can talk to you now.’

“I was just asking how family was. There was nothing professional or business or anything. Just checking in on him. Let’s face it, he’s going to be a good friend the rest of my life, regardless of professionally what happens.”

The Braves are coming out of the work stoppage with more uncertainty than most. Acuna has been rehabbing from a torn ACL, Morton is back on the mound after breaking his leg in the World Series opener and Mike Soroka is progressing after re-tearing his right Achilles tendon last summer.

“I’m ready,” Acuna said on his way into the clubhouse

Not quite, but the Braves are pleased with his progress. The 2018 NL Rookie of the Year suffered a season-ending right knee injury last July and missed Atlanta’s October run.

Acuna has said he’s eyeing a return to game action in May. The Braves haven’t announced a timeline yet, but Snitker is encouraged by what he’s heard and excited to see Acuna in action when workouts begin Monday.

“I know the reports are really good,” Snitker said. “I mean really good. I guess that he’s worked his rear off.”

Morton had a plate and several screws surgically placed in his leg after being hit by a 102 mph comebacker in Game 1 of the World Series – he threw 16 more pitches after that, saying Sunday “it wasn’t until the bone actually separated, like I actually felt separation of the bone, that’s when I was like, all right.”

The 38-year-old has resumed throwing and isn’t far off track from his normal spring regimen, although he wanted to gauge his progress a little more before committing to being ready for opening day April 7.

Soroka, an All-Star in 2019, hasn’t pitched since early in 2020 after tearing his Achilles tendon for the first time. He re-tore it last year during the rehab process. Snitker said he’s progressing well and that doctors are encouraged by his recovery.

“I know he’s excited about getting back down here and starting this thing up again,” Snitker said. “But I know a year ago today, he probably was, too.”

VERLANDER’S RETURN

Verlander says he feels great following his first bullpen session at spring training.

The 39-year-old threw around 40 pitches in two simulated innings on the first day of Houston’s camp, a positive sign for the two-time Cy Young Award winner in his return from Tommy John surgery.

“I’m on cloud nine,” Verlander said.

Verlander, manager Dusty Baker and general manager James Click say they haven’t established a spring or regular-season workload expectation for the right-hander.

DEEP POCKETS

New York Mets owner Steve Cohen is unfazed by a new spending restriction in baseball’s labor contract that seems aimed directly as hits deep pockets.

The contract agreed to by owners and players last week includes a fourth threshold for the sport’s luxury tax system for teams that exceed $290 million in payroll. Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo referred to it as the “Cohen Tax” on Saturday.

Asked if his Mets would spend past the new threshold, Cohen said, “we probably will.”

“I’m OK with it,” he added. “I’m willing to live with it. My view was, we’ve got to look at that agreement in its entirety – $290 million is a lot to spend. It’s a pretty big limit. I’ve got to live within the baseball confines.”

TWINS ARE IN

The Minnesota Twins took their first significant step toward restocking their starting pitching by acquiring right-hander Sonny Gray in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds included minor league right-hander Francis Peguero in the deal for Twins pitching prospect Chase Petty. The 18-year-old Petty was Minnesota’s first-round draft pick last year.

Gray will slot right in at the top of the rotation for the Twins. The 32-year-old Gray is a two-time All-Star and went 7-9 with a 4.19 ERA in 26 starts last season, his third with the Reds. This will be his 10th year in the major leagues.

Brian Cashman signs 4-year contract to remain Yankees GM

Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — Brian Cashman has signed a four-year contract to remain the New York Yankees Senior Vice President and General Manager. The announcement was made during the first day of baseball’s Winter Meetings.

Cashman, New York’s GM since 1998, had been working on a handshake agreement since early November, when his five-year contract expired.

The Yankees were swept by four games in the AL Championship Series and haven’t reached the World Series since winning in 2009. It is the franchise’s longest title drought since an 18-year gap between 1978-96.

Cashman’s main goal during the offseason is trying to re-sign AL MVP Aaron Judge.

Judge hit an American League-record 62 homers this season with a .311 batting average and 131 RBIs. He turned down the Yankees’ offer on the eve of opening day of a seven-year contract that would have paid $213.5 million from 2023-29.

While Judge remains on the market, Cashman was able to re-sign Anthony Rizzo on Nov. 15 to a two-year contract worth $40 million after turning down a $16 million player option.

Cashman has been the Yankees general manager since 1998. He has been with the organization since 1986, when he was a 19-year old intern in the scouting department. In his 25 seasons as GM, the Yankees have reached the postseason 21 times, including four World Series championships and six American League titles.