LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Here in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom sits the land of the young and the spring-training home of the Atlanta Braves.
This baseball camp is in stark contrast to the one 87 miles to the west in beautiful Clearwater, Fla., where senior citizens won’t just fill the stands at Bright House Field when the Grapefruit League schedule begins, they will also occupy the field.
All right, so that’s a cheap shot. Nobody in the Philadelphia Phillies’ camp has an AARP card. Not yet anyway. The team, however, will have a lineup Wednesday against Toronto with six players 34 years or older in it. Five of them will be 35 or older. Two of the Phillies’ top three starters are 35 or older.
You can argue that with age comes wisdom, but Atlanta’s youth movement a year ago brought them something much better — a National League East title, the team’s first since its run of 14 straight division titles ended in 2006. The Braves had one regular — Dan Uggla — and two key pitchers — Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm — over the age of 29 last season, and they won 96 games.
Four of their regulars were 25 or younger, and their best starters — Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran — were all 27 or younger. Closer Craig Kimbrel is 25, and his first three seasons in the bullpen’s most vital role have been superior to Mariano Rivera’s first three seasons as the New York Yankees’ closer.
So why have the Braves been able to win with so many young players while the Phillies have grown old?
“Well, they’re good,” Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said last week. “They’re a talented group of guys, and, yes, they’re young in age, but for the most part some of these guys have three, four, or five years in the major leagues. They were just able to come up at a real young age and establish themselves.”
It could be argued that the Braves have passed the Washington Nationals as the best young team in the National League East and perhaps all of baseball. The Nats, of course, also still have a wealth of young talent and are only a year removed from winning the division.
Atlanta, however, felt so good about its own young talent that it recently went on a February spending spree, buying out some of the salary-arbitration and free-agent years of its rising stars.
It started with a relatively modest two-year, $13.3 million deal for Jason Heyward that bought out the final two years of salary arbitration for the 24-year-old rightfielder. A day later, first baseman Freddie Freeman, 24, got an eight-year, $135 million deal. Teheran, 23, was up next with a six-year, $32.4 million deal. Kimbrel, 25, signed for four years and $42 million with a chance to make a lot more. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons, 24, received a seven-year deal worth $58 million after winning a Gold Glove as a rookie last season.
“It’s really nice to see that the Braves want to keep this team together,” Simmons said. “We have great talent, and it’s a fun team to be around, and them showing the confidence in us is really cool.”
This was, for the longest time, Chipper Jones’ team. Now, the Braves belong to the young and the carefree.
“Yeah, I do,” Simmons said when asked if he thought the Braves’ identity had changed. “I mean, we have to step up. We have big shoes to fill, but I feel like we have the guys who are capable of doing it. We have great chemistry. We have fun.”
Age doesn’t matter as much when you have talent, and the Braves have an abundance of it, especially in the pitching department. The team ERA was an MLB-best 3.18 last season. Only three teams — the 2011 Phillies, the 2003 Dodgers, and the 2002 Braves — have had a lower ERA in this century. The Braves’ bullpen ERA was an MLB-best 2.46, a number matched only by the 2003 Dodgers in this century.
“We saw them in spring training last year, and I thought they were impressive,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. “They had a very strong bullpen that complemented their starting pitching. I think that was their strength.”
Sandberg wasn’t nearly as impressed with the Atlanta offense.
“I think in a lot of ways their offense was sometimes hit or miss and relied on the long ball,” Sandberg said. “They got enough of them to create the offense, but to me it started with their pitching, and they played good defense. … I saw that they could be pitched to.”
Gonzalez, entering his third year as Atlanta’s manager, didn’t disagree with Sandberg, and as happy as he was with his team’s recent spending spree, he is still only cautiously optimistic about the future.
“I think the biggest thing last year was we played defense and we pitched,” Gonzalez said. “Offensively, we were kind of in the middle of the pack. But you lock up a core of young players that you know are going to be here, and that’s always a good thing. This looks good, but you never know with injuries and stuff like that.”
The aging team 87 miles to the east knows all about what injuries can do to the best-laid plans, and now the Phillies find themselves chasing much younger teams like the Braves and Nationals.