Braves hitting coach hopeful about Uggla, Upton

Cox NewspapersJanuary 15, 2014 

ATLANTA -- In the past 100 years, there have been only eight times when a major-league hitter batted below .185 in a season in which he had at least 350 at-bats. Remarkably, the National League East champion Braves had two of those eight cases last season in Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, who also happened to be the team's highest-paid players, with two and four years remaining on their respective contracts.

Some might suggest that puts hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant Scott Fletcher, who return on one-year contracts, in a challenging situation. But Walker, a veteran former player and coach, insists he's excited about the challenge or opportunity, however you want to look at it.

"If I didn't think the two guys had the desire to be good, I wouldn't be as excited," Walker said. "These two guys don't want to have another year like that. I can't say put it in stone that everything's going to be rosy, but I'm optimistic.

Upton, in the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract -- the largest free-agent deal in club history -- batted .184 in 391 at-bats, with 14 doubles, nine homers, 26 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 126 games.

Uggla, in the third year of his five-year, $62 million contract, batted .179 in 448 at-bats, with 10 doubles, 22 home runs and 55 RBIs in 136 games.

The two of them struck out 322 times in 839 at-bats.

The Braves have tried to trade Uggla this offseason, but found no takers interesting in paying any significant part of the $26 million he's still owed over the next two seasons. At this point it looks as if they won't be able to trade the veteran second baseman unless another team has an injury or two in the spring, and/or Uggla shows he can reverse the two-year erosion in his offensive performance and be a significantly better hitter than he was in 2013.

"I think both of them are going to be fine mentally," Walker said. "We just need to see where their swings are. Until we get to spring training and see live fire, we won't

really know much."

Uggla got married in the offseason and has been working out with several teammates in the northern Atlanta suburbs.

Walker said Uggla has a batting cage at his house and that Fletcher or Walker planned to start working with Uggla some in the next week or two.

B.J. Upton has been working out at his home in Tampa, Fla., and began hitting earlier than he usually does in the offseason, traveling to Arizona before Christmas and hitting with his brother and Braves teammate Justin Upton in the batting cage that Justin has in his new home in Scottsdale.

Walker said White Sox veteran Paul Konerko, one of Walker's prized pupils during his tenure as White Sox hitting coach, has agreed to start working with Justin Upton in Arizona, along with another friend of Walker's who is a hitting coach out there. He said Justin liked the idea and agreed to have Konerko come out and start hitting with him.

While Justin Upton's first season with the Braves was inconsistent, he still ended up with 27 doubles, 27 homers (including a team-record 12 in April), a solid .354 OBP and an .818 OPS. He's not a concern for the Braves.

B.J. Upton is, whether they say so publicly or not.

The Braves have told B.J. to put last year behind and focus on a fresh start. The Braves believe he struggled like so many other free agents have in recent years after switching teams and, in some cases such as B.J.'s, also switching leagues. He had spent his entire career in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

"He's got to get more efficient" with his swing, Walker said. "We agreed for him to take a mental break, take some time to get away from it. We have six or seven weeks of spring training, and we have the next month. Just try to get more efficient. The talent level is there, the work ethic, the desire is there. Just a matter of tightening things back up."

Walker, who lives in South Georgia, likely will travel to Tampa in the next few weeks to work some with B.J. and see where his swing is, to get an idea of what they still need to work on during spring training. Braves first base coach (and former hitting coach) Terry Pendleton also offered to go to Tampa to work with him.

B.J. has also tried to add some weight in the offseason after losing pounds over the course of the season in his first year with the Braves, his first major league season playing home games outdoors.

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