Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton big story lines for Braves in spring training

Cox NewspapersFebruary 10, 2014 

ATLANTA -- In signing Freddie Freeman to the largest contract in Braves history last week, general manager Frank Wren effectively threw a bone of optimism to the fan base, many of whom waited for one all winter. It was also a palate cleanser of sorts after an otherwise encouraging 2013 season ended on a down note in a division series defeat against the Dodgers.

Freeman's $135 million contract, coupled with Wren's stated plan to keep the Braves' young core together, came at an opportune time -- just before the annual rite or renewal that is spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report Thursday to camp at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and the first full-squad workout is Feb. 19.

There will be plenty of story lines to follow this spring, and more issues that folks seem concerned about than might be expected for a young team with so many returners from a 96-win unit that captured its first division title since 2005.

But that's what can happen when your team loses some leaders -- Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Eric O'Flaherty -- to free agency and it doesn't make major additions comparable to those made by the main division rival, the Nationals.

Also, things seem magnified because a lasting Braves image of 2013 was Juan Uribe's eighth-inning, two-run homer into the Los Angeles night off David Carpenter in Game 4 of the division series. A shot that lifted the Dodgers past the Braves while closer Craig Kimbrel stood in the bullpen, warmed and upset that he hadn't been brought in to squelch the rally.

So, the Braves head back to their spring home at ESPN's Wide World of Sports cloaked in the usual anticipation and high hopes of Braves Country, but also with many followers concerned about one or more matters that must be resolved, preferably before things get real March 31 in the regular-season opener at Milwaukee.

They Braves will play nearly 200 games -- 34 at spring training, 162 during the season -- before they could get a chance to put their playoff loss to the Dodgers behind them and end an alarming streak of eight consecutive postseason series losses. But for now, the focus is not on making the playoffs, but on getting things going in the right direction in Central Florida.

What follows are some key situations we'll watch to see how they begin to shake out amid the sun and palm trees. There are other questions, such as whether Jason Heyward will bat leadoff (which appears most likely). But these are the biggest.

Uggla and Upton: It's not exaggerating to suggest that Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton were among the handful of worst hitters in all of baseball last season. Especially troubling considering they were the Braves' two highest-paid players, both with multiple years remaining on their contracts, meaning it was going to take more than a garden-variety extended slump to bench them.

They had slumps of epic proportion, coupled with health issues -- a midseason groin injury for Upton, late-season laser eye surgery for Uggla -- and both eventually were benched for varying periods. Uggla was left off the postseason roster, an awkward situation for him and manager Fredi Gonzalez, a relationship that dates to their years together with the Marlins.

Upton, in the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract, batted .184 with a .268 on-base percentage in 391 at-bats, with nine homers, 26 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 126 games. Uggla, in the third season of a five-year, $62 million deal, hit .179 in 448 at-bats, with 10 doubles and 22 homers in 136 games. The two piled up 322 strikeouts in 839 at-bats.

So, now what? The Braves tried to trade Uggla over the winter, but quickly realized there were no takers interested in paying any significant part of the $26 million he's owed over the next two seasons.

The best the Braves could hope for this spring: Another team, preferably with deep pockets, has an injury and Uggla gets off to a good start to convince said team he can still be a power-hitting presence. The Braves would probably pay a big portion of his remaining salary to make a deal happen, but how much is unclear.

The second-best scenario: Uggla plays well this spring and carries it over to the regular season. He doesn't have to be the .265 hitter with 30 homers and 85-90 RBIs -- the hitter they thought he would be when they traded for him -- but if he can stop the three-year erosion and hit at least .230-.240 with a decent OBP and 25 homers, it would be a major improvement.

Uggla got married this winter and worked out regularly with a few teammates, including Freeman. They say he's upbeat. Gonzalez talked with him early in the offseason and said they got things smoothed over.

More important to the Braves, given his long-term contract, is the status of B.J. Upton. He worked out at home in Tampa, Fla., with the goal of simplifying his swing to get it back where it was until four or five years ago with the Rays. Hitting coach Greg Walker paid a visit and came away impressed with the work Upton did to clean up his swing.

"I think both of them are going to be fine mentally," Walker said. "We just need to see where there swings are (against live pitching). Until we get to spring training, we won't really know much."

Beachy's elbow: He had two elbow surgeries in 15 months, and if the one Brandon Beachy had in September -- a less-invasive arthroscopic procedure to clean out debris -- was as effective as it seems thus far, the Braves could be welcoming back a top-half-of-the-rotation type of starter to a unit that already has three.

Before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament and having Tommy John surgery in June 2012, Beachy had a 2.00 ERA and majors-leading .171 opponents' average in 13 starts that season. In his last 35 starts before the injury, he had 2.89 ERA, .208 opponents' average and 220 strikeouts in 205 1/3 innings. Yes, in case you forgot, he was that good.

If he's back strong, he will join Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor to give the Braves a formidable, experienced foursome even before free-agent signee Gavin Floyd is ready to join the rotation around May after his own Tommy John surgery rehab.

Beachy's recovery from Tommy John surgery went smoothly for 11 1/2 months, until he had a setback for inflammation. When he returned from the disabled list, he was 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in five starts between July 29 and Aug. 20, including a 2.73 ERA and .198 opponents' average in the last four of those starts.

While showing flashes of his old form, including eight scoreless innings in which he gave up three hits against the Marlins, Beachy didn't have the velocity or firm breaking pitches that made him so effective before his injury. There was lingering soreness in his elbow, and an MRI showed some tiny debris, which Dr. James Andrews removed via arthroscope Sept. 26.

Beachy has thrown without incident in recent weeks and expects to be on a regular schedule this spring.

Fifth starter: Even with Floyd on the disabled list to start the season, the Braves have a few good options to round out the rotation, led by veteran Freddy Garcia, a pleasant surprise in September and October, and rookie left-hander Alex Wood. Another rookie, David Hale, showed enough in two terrific September starts to make him a candidate if needed.

Garcia turned 37 in October, just before limiting the Dodgers to two runs and eight hits in six innings of Game 4 in the division series, where he was in line for a win against L.A. ace Clayton Kershaw before Uribe's homer off Carpenter.

It said plenty about Garcia's impressive September, and his postseason track record, that Gonzalez was willing to start him in an elimination game at this point of his career and after the way his season began.

Garcia was 3-5 with a 5.77 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) for Baltimore early last season and languished in Triple-A before the Braves acquired him in August. He was 1-2 with a 1.65 ERA in six September games, including a 1.83 ERA in three starts in which he lasted at least six innings.

Garcia re-signed this winter, to a minor-league contract that gives him the right to become a free agent if he's not on the major league roster March 26. He let everyone know he's not interested in going back to Triple-A, and Garcia is confident he'll make the team either as a starter or reliever.

Wood debuted in the majors less than a year after being drafted out of the University of Georgia, and the lefty with the funky delivery excelled as a starter and reliever. He was 3-2 with a 3.54 ERA in 11 starts and had a 2.08 ERA in 20 relief appearances, with 23 strikeouts and five walks in 21 2/3 innings.

With lefty Jonny Venters not expected back until May or June from his second Tommy John surgery, the Braves could start the season with Wood as a second lefty reliever to complement Luis Avilan, and have Garcia open in the rotation. Once Venters and Floyd are back from Tommy John surgery rehab, the Braves would have some decisions to make if the rest of the staff is healthy and pitching well.

Floyd, a former 17-game winner, signed a one-year, $4 million contract that has incentives worth up to another $4.5 million.

El Oso replaces B-Mac: It's not easy replacing a seven-time All-Star catcher, which McCann is, much less doing it after making only 38 starts behind the plate the previous season as a rookie.

Evan Gattis, aka El Oso Blanco ("The White Bear"), wasn't a typical rookie, and the Braves and their pitchers saw enough last year from the well-traveled 27-year-old to have confidence in his ability to call a game and not be afraid to make decisions and assert leadership while handling the pitching staff.

Gattis will be the primary catcher, with backup from veteran Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit, a veteran right fielder/catcher the Braves got from Minnesota in an offseason trade.

It will be interesting to watch Gattis this spring when he's not trying to make the team, as he was a year ago, and can instead focus on working with Atlanta's pitchers, while also hitting against opponents who now have a better idea of how to pitch to him. He hit .243 and ranked second among major league rookies with 21 home runs in 105 games (354 at-bats).

His .482 slugging percentage also ranked second behind Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig (.534) among all rookies with 375 or more plate appearances, but Gattis had a low .291 OBP after walking only 21 times.

Braves pitchers have no doubts about his ability to block balls, throw out runners and hit with a whole lot of power. And a lot of people will be watching to see what Gattis can do now that he's not forced to play out of position in the outfield, where he started 47 games in left last season as Gonzalez looked for ways to keep his bat in the lineup.

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