Champion Braves open camp with Acuña, Morton but no Freeman

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The Atlanta Braves minor leaguers watch a game during the start of spring baseball training at CoolToday Park on Sunday, March 13, 2022, in North Port, Florida. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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Braves manager Brian Snitker held court in front of a “2021 World Champions” banner, culminating occasionally at the nearby bullpen, where World Series hero Charlie Morton hosted a side session. Around the corner, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Cristian Pache pulled up in matching, shiny SUVs and posed for a photo.

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

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

The big leaguers dropped into camps across Florida and Arizona on Sunday for the first official day of spring training after a 99-day lockdown. Fans rejoiced at sights familiar and new — Astros ace Justin Verlander returning from injury, All-Star Marcus Semien fielding the Rangers red-and-blue grounders.

It’s been more than a decade since Freeman was in the Atlanta camp, but the 2020 NL MVP remains a free agent — and one of them has reportedly been courted by the big-money Yankees and Dodgers.

Snitker texted Freeman shortly after the firewall prevented management from speaking with dropped players when lockdown ended on Thursday. He doesn’t know what his former first baseman will do and didn’t ask. He just wanted to talk to an old friend.

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

“I was just asking how the family was doing. There was nothing professional or corporate or anything. I just checked it. Let’s face it, he’s going to be a good friend for the rest of my life, no matter what happens professionally.

The Braves come out of the work stoppage with more uncertainty than most. Acuña has recovered from a torn ACL, Morton is back on the mound after breaking his leg in Game 1 of the World Series and Mike Soroka is progressing after tearing his right Achilles tendon the last summer.

“I’m ready,” Acuña said on his way to the clubhouse

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

Acuña said he is considering a return to play in May. The Braves haven’t announced a schedule yet, but Snitker is encouraged by what he’s heard and excited to see Acuña in action when practices begin Monday.

“I know the reports are really good,” Snitker said. “I mean really well. I guess he worked his back.

Morton had a plate and several screws surgically placed in his leg after he was hit by a comeback at 102 mph in Game 1 of the World Series – he threw another 16 pitches after that, saying on Sunday “that’s only when the bone actually separated, like I actually felt the separation of the bone, that’s when I was like, okay.

The 38-year-old has returned to throwing and is not far off his normal spring regime, although he wanted to assess his progress a little more before committing to being ready for the opening day of the 7 April.

Soroka, a 2019 All-Star, hasn’t pitched since the start of 2020 after tearing his Achilles tendon for the first time. He tore it last year during the rehabilitation process. Snitker said he was progressing well and doctors were encouraged by his recovery.

“I know he’s excited to come back here and do it again,” Snitker said. “But I know a year ago today he probably was too.”

THE RETURN OF VERLANDER

Verlander says he feels great after his first bullpen session in spring training.

The 39-year-old threw about 40 pitches in two mock innings on the first day of camp in Houston, a positive sign for the two-time Cy Young Award winner returning from Tommy John surgery.

“I’m on cloud nine,” Verlander said.

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

DEEP POCKETS

New York Mets owner Steve Cohen isn’t impressed with a new spending restriction in baseball’s labor contract that appears to be aimed squarely at deep pockets.

The deal owners and players agreed to 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 called it a “Cohen tax” on Saturday.

When asked if his Mets would pass the new threshold, Cohen replied, “We probably will.”

“I’m okay with that,” he added. “I’m ready to live with it. In my opinion, we have to look at this agreement in its entirety — $290 million is a lot to spend. That’s a pretty big limit. I have to live within the confines of baseball.

THE TWINS ARE IN

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

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

Gray will slot into the very top of the rotation for the Twins. Gray, 32, was 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.

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Follow Jake Seiner: https://twitter.com/Jake_Seiner

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