LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When the Braves were in the National League West, they began their string of 14 consecutive division titles with tight pennant races against the Dodgers, Reds and Giants. Their move to the NL East produced a couple of late-season battles and a rivalry with the Mets.
Now, for the first time since Bobby Valentine was managing the Mets more than a decade ago, the Braves might once again have a true division rival in the Nationals, a team that is also looking toward the future with great expectations.
"When there are good teams in front of you in your division, it makes for a fun season, especially when you're going to be good too," Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird said. "You want to be battling it out. It just makes you stronger as a team. When people are picking another team to win, it just gives you more incentive to go out and prove them wrong."
Having added outfielder Denard Span and closer Rafael Soriano to a team that recorded a Major League-best 98 victories last year, the Nationals enter this season with legitimate World Series hopes and the tag of being the team to beat in the NL East.
"We've got to come prepared and ready to fight," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "But we feel that we are just as good as they are."
The optimism surrounding the Braves increased in January when they completed their outfield reconstruction process by acquiring Justin Upton in a seven-player trade with the D-backs. Two months earlier, they had signed B.J. Upton to a franchise-record five-year $75.25 million contract.
With the additions of the Upton brothers, the Braves added a pair of right-handed hitters that should add power and speed to a lineup that was left-handed heavy last year. Their presence combined with a pitching staff that returns relatively intact, provide Atlanta reason to believe its roster is stronger than the one that won 94 games and secured a Wild Card berth last year.
"I thought the last couple years, they had a strong left-handed presence in their lineup and I thought they always needed a little more right-handed presence in the lineup and they certainly did that with the two Upton boys, so I think their lineup is much more balanced," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.
In other words, like the Nationals, the Braves have the potential to be even better this year. But as the Phillies proved while finishing third in last year's NL East race, preseason hype is the only guarantee provided by potential.
"I'm a big believer in playing the game," Braves right-hander Kris Medlen said. "I don't like talking about potential. It's like talking about prospects. Cool, you throw hard, but you don't know anything about pitching. You just don't know anything until you play the game. I don't like talking about rosters or who looks good on paper. I just like playing the game and trying to beat whoever we are playing."
The two NL East favorites got their first look at each other as the Braves claimed a 9-5 win over the Nationals at Champion Stadium on Tuesday afternoon. While there was no significance to the outcome, the contest provided a reminder that there should be plenty of excitement surrounding the 19 regular-season games these two teams are scheduled to play against each other this year.
"On paper, I definitely put us just as good [as the Nationals]," Laird said. "They may have some strengths and we have some strengths on our side. But for the most part, we are two competitively-balanced teams. Some people might be picking them to win the division, but Atlanta won 94 games last year and we've improved. I'm looking forward to it. I think it's going to be anybody's race."
A veteran of multiple NL East races, McCann warns against forgetting about the Phillies, who could still have one of the game's top rotations if Roy Halladay proves to be healthy and effective again.
"I know they're not getting much press right now," McCann said. "But they've got a great team and veteran guys who have been there. If they stay healthy, they're going to be in it until the end. The Nationals are extremely good too, and we've got a good team. So it's going to be a dog fight."
While reaching the World Series with the Cardinals and the Tigers the past two seasons, Laird was reminded that the fight to get to the playoffs is often unpredictable.
Before winning the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals entered September trailing the Braves by 8 1/2 games in the Wild Card race. Last year, Laird and his Tigers teammates entered the season as the favorites to win the American League Central and then had to pass the White Sox in late September to gain a playoff berth.
"It doesn't matter how good you are on paper," Laird said. "If you don't play well, you're not going to win games. It's kind of nice to fly under the radar like we are. We can just play our game and the pressure is obviously on [the Nationals]. We just have to put things together and hopefully we can get it done."