New year brings an enthusiastic outlook for Atlanta
Braves return much of the same club that won 96 games and NL East title
ATLANTA -- Change is in the air with the arrival of every new year. Resolutions will lead many to alter their diet and exercise habits with the hope of gaining a new and improved look.
With this winter's free-agent departures of Tim Hudson and Brian McCann, the Braves lost their two longest-tenured players and slightly altered the look of a roster that, for the first time since 1987, will not include a player who played with John Smoltz in Atlanta.
But a strong sense of familiarity still surrounds the Braves as they enter 2014, anxiously looking forward to building on the success of a new era that was celebrated in September, when the club captured the National League East title.
Most of the same players who played a key role in winning the division title will be back to defend it. Each of the eight position players projected to be in the lineup on a regular basis made at least 89 starts for the Braves last year.
Three members of the projected Opening Day rotation made at least 10 starts for Atlanta in 2013. Manager Fredi Gonzalez's bullpen will also once again feature closer Craig Kimbrel and the three men -- Jordan Walden, David Carpenter and Luis Avilan -- who spent this summer proving to be capable setup men.
This has been a relatively quiet offseason for Braves general manager Frank Wren. Over the past few weeks, he has added depth by signing veteran starting pitcher Gavin Floyd and acquiring Ryan Doumit from the Twins to serve as a switch-hitting pinch-hitter with the capability of serving as a third catcher and a backup option at first base and the corner-outfield spots.
But, for the most part, Wren has spent this winter developing the belief that there was not much reason to tinker with what he already had the opportunity to bring into this new year.
"We have our primary needs filled," Wren said. "We like our club. Over the last four years, we have won the second-most games in all of baseball -- and our team continues to improve. I think people are always looking for a bigger move. But sometimes, it's just better to evaluate your team and look at what you have."
While Wren likes what he has, he still finds himself staring at the uncertainty that surrounds all of his peers around this time every year. Here are nine of the top questions the Braves face entering 2014:
1. What should be expected from B.J. Upton?
After hitting .184 with a .557 OPS during his first season in Atlanta, Upton can take solace in the fact that things can't get much worse. But it remains to be seen how much value the Braves will end up receiving from a player who signed a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract 13 months ago. His struggles could have been a product of the pressure created by the contract or the unfamiliarity he encountered while playing outside the Rays organization for the first time. Whatever the case, the 29-year-old outfielder has a chance to enter this new year with a clean slate and the chance to produce a much different script.
2. Will Dan Uggla rebound in Atlanta?
If the Braves do not trade Uggla (and there is certainly reason to believe they won't), he will likely come to Spring Training as the projected starting second baseman. How long he holds this role will depend on whether he is able to escape the struggles he has encountered over the past season and a half. Blurred vision led him to endure the most miserable season of his career last year. After having LASIK surgery in August, he was given just 41 plate appearances before the Braves benched him in favor of Elliot Johnson and ultimately left him off the NL Division Series roster. Uggla will enter the new year with a chip on his shoulder. But more importantly, he could also still possess the plate discipline and power potential that has enabled him to produce a .319 on-base percentage and homer once every 23.5 at-bats, even while he has hit just .185 over his past 236 games.
3. Will Evan Gattis be effective as the primary catcher?
It will take time for Gattis to come close to gaining the kind of familiarity McCann had with handling pitchers and certain game situations. But while filling in for McCann during the first six weeks of the 2013 season, Gattis erased doubts about his ability to at least be a serviceable defensive catcher. Like McCann, he is never going to win a Gold Glove. But he has shown that he possesses the footwork and arm strength necessary to not be considered a defensive liability behind the plate.
4. Can the bullpen build off of last year's success?
Doom was forecasted when Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters underwent Tommy John surgery a few days apart in the middle of May. But with Avilan, Walden and Carpenter all proving capable of serving as effective setup men for Kimbrel, the Braves ended up producing a franchise record 2.46 bullpen ERA. With that group and the under-appreciated Anthony Varvaro all set to return, Gonzalez should feel good about his club's ability to consistently hold late-inning leads.
5. Will the "inexperienced" starting rotation once again be a primary asset?
Atlanta's projected rotation does not include a pitcher who has made more than 85 career starts. But as this past season progressed, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran all proved they are capable of being solid front-of-the rotation assets. If Brandon Beachy rebounds from the elbow issues that plagued him last year, the Braves will have four starters who fit this description. Alex Wood, who posted a 0.90 ERA in five August starts, will likely begin the season as the fifth starter. Wood could be shifted to the 'pen if Floyd makes a successful recovery from the elbow reconstruction surgery he underwent seven months ago.
6. Will Jason Heyward be a consistent catalyst at the top of the lineup?
Gonzalez was hesitant to move Heyward to the leadoff spot. But once he did during the final days of July, he saw the decision prove to be a primary reason the club enjoyed a 14-game winning streak. Heyward batted .322 with a .403 on-base percentage in the 30 games he hit first in the Braves' order. Given the fact that he has always possessed great plate discipline and above-average speed, there is little reason to doubt his ability to once again consistently provide Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman with run-producing opportunities.
7. What should be expected from Andrelton Simmons at the plate?
Simmons did not necessarily shock the world with the record-setting defensive metrics he produced this past summer. From the first day he arrived at Spring Training, it was apparent he had the tools to become the game's best defensive shortstop. But, given the fact he had totaled just nine home runs in his previous 1,224 professional plate appearances, it would have been illogical to predict he would homer 17 times. After he did so last season, there is now more reason to be optimistic about the offensive capabilities of this young shortstop, whose power masked the struggles he encountered while attempting to gain better plate discipline. Simmons made some strides in this department, as well, while compiling a .316 on-base percentage after the All-Star break.
8. Can Chris Johnson duplicate last year's offensive production?
Johnson entered this past season widely recognized as the "other" player the Braves got in the deal that brought Justin Upton from Arizona to Atlanta. But the gritty third baseman eventually earned the everyday role at third base and ended up ranking second in the NL with a .321 batting average. Given that he set a franchise record with a .394 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), there is reason to wonder if he'll come back this year and produce something closer to the .276 career batting average he carried into 2013. But as he has proven, he seems to thrive when given a chance to prove his doubters wrong.
9. Will the Braves make another trip to the postseason?
The attempt to win a second straight NL East title will be made challenging by the Nationals, who bolstered their strong rotation with the acquisition of Doug Fister. But with a familiar cast returning, the Braves have reason to believe they can build on the success of a 96-win season that was disrupted by significant injuries (Heyward, O'Flaherty and Hudson) and burdened by the struggles of the club's two highest-paid players -- Uggla and B.J. Upton.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.