KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman were walking back to the Atlanta clubhouse, having finishing up a stint in the batting cages on a rainy morning, when they spotted Bryce Harper sitting at the end of the Washington dugout.
They went over to shake hands and chat for a few minutes, their first chance to catch up with the Nationals young star this season.
It won’t be the last time they meet.
This has all the makings of a great baseball rivalry: two youthful teams in the same division, both poised for long-term success but likely to be in each other’s way.
“You definitely know what’s across the table,” said Uggla, the Braves’ second baseman, before the teams met in a spring training game Tuesday.
Last year, they battled all season for the NL East title, the Nationals leading most of the way with the Braves in hot pursuit. Washington finished with a league-leading 98 wins — four games ahead of Atlanta, though both made the playoffs.
After each lost to St. Louis in the postseason (the Braves in a disputed one-game playoff, the Nationals in a bitter division series), they began making moves with an eye on a longer October run, ever mindful of what their division rival was up to.
The Braves signed B.J. Upton and traded for his younger brother, Justin, to give their offense a much needed boost from the right side of the plate. The Nationals traded for a true leadoff hitter, Denard Span, and signed closer Rafael Soriano, adding to a team that already includes two of baseball’s brightest young players, Harper and pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
“You’ve got to prepare,” Uggla said. “If they make a move, you’ve constantly got to do what it takes to be competitive. I feel like we did that this year.”
Davey Johnson is also impressed with Atlanta’s offseason moves, believing the Braves addressed their major weakness from the last few seasons — a lineup that was heavy on lefties.
That said, the Washington manager made it clear what his team’s mindset will be.
World Series or bust.
“We’ve already won a (division) pennant. We’ve been in the postseason,” Johnson said. “With that experience and the talent level that’s here, our goals should be higher. There’s no sense romancing anybody and telling you, ‘Geez, we’d be lucky to win our division, we’d be lucky to go far in the playoffs.’ … But I don’t think I’m telling these players anything they don’t believe themselves.”
Not surprisingly, one of the moves Washington made in the offseason was signing Soriano, who had 42 saves for the New York Yankees filling in for the injured Mariano Duncan. The Nationals plan to use their new addition in the ninth inning, with former closers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard handling duties in the seventh and eighth.
The acquisition of Span provides a true leadoff hitter, which was lacking in 2012. Finally, the Nationals filled a hole in their rotation by picking up Dan Haren, who battled injuries but still won 12 games with the Angels, adding a veteran presence to a young rotation that includes 20-game winner Gio Gonzalez.
“We have confidence and have shown what we can do,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “Now, we’ve just got to keep rolling with it.”
The Braves had a major hole to fill after Chipper Jones retired, but general manager Frank Wren moved boldly to make up what was lost — and then some. He signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract (essentially the same money Jones was getting), then pulled off a seven-player deal with Arizona to land B.J.’s younger brother.
“They were a very talented team to start with, but they definitely made some good offseason acquisitions,” Espinosa said. “It’s always fun playing them. They’ve got a good group of guys over there. They play hard. They play the right way.”