Guerry Clegg commentary: Braves loooking for improvement during spring training

February 11, 2014 

Finally!

Spring training is here. Well, almost. Atlanta Braves' pitchers and catchers officially report Thursday and begin working out Friday. Position players are set to arrive by Tuesday, though some -- notably the betrothed and handsomely paid Freddie Freeman -- already have arrived.

Soon, the reports of split squad games will brighten the afternoon like a warm sun after a gloomy day. We know not to pay much attention to the final scores or get too hung up on box scores. Spring training statistics generally mean little, and the standings mean absolutely nothing.

It seems every year we get excited about someone, either an aging veteran reclaiming his youth, or a young kid wearing an offensive tackle's number who dazzles and makes the veterans take notice.

Sometimes, the kid serves notice that he's here to stay, like Rafael Furcal. Other times, he breaks camp with the big club then is never heard from again. Wonder whatever became of Adam Butler?

Still, for some players, spring training does have a purpose beyond the repetitive drills of pitchers covering first base on bunts. Here's what I would like to see emerge from Camp Bravos this spring.

• Brandon Beachy pain free. Braves officials have insisted that last year's set-back following elbow surgery was resolved by arthroscopic surgery. Let's hope so. But everyone will breathe a little easier once Beachy starts pitching every fifth day and experiences nothing more than the normal fatigue the day after.

A healthy and productive Beachy would more than offset the loss of Tim Hudson to the San Francisco Giants. As popular and important as Hudson was, let's not forget that he did win just eight games last year and missed the last 61 games with a broken ankle, and the Braves still won 96 games.

• Different swing from BJ Upton. I'm starting to think Upton may yet pan out. He'll probably never live up to his $75 million contract, especially considering that he has a built-in $1 million raise each year. But maybe last year's horrendous slump was an aberration and he can just be an average major league center fielder. A good spring training would boost his confidence.

Granted, it wouldn't be a cure-all. After all, Upton hit .347 last spring and then look what happened. But on the flip-side, a horrible spring to follow up last year could shatter his confidence.

• Different approach from Dan Uggla. The maddening thing about Uggla's plummet from being one of the best hitting second basemen in baseball to being one of the worst hitters regardless of position has been his apparent lack of adjustment. It's apparent from watching him take hittable strikes and flail at two-strike breaking balls that his whole mindset when he steps into the box is to look for a pitch he can slam 400 feet.

It's like watching a 20-year-old phenom called straight up from A-ball. The problem is Uggla is about to turn 34 and entering his ninth big league season. He has defended his approach in the past saying "I'm a pull hitter." Perhaps getting left off the postseason roster by Fredi Gonzalez, one of his strongest advocates, was the wakeup call Uggla needed. If he will just start trying to line more pitches up the middle, the home runs will come eventually. If not, expect more of the same.

• Same approach from Chris Johnson. Third base is often a power-hitting position. So Johnson might feel the temptation to "improve" his production by hitting more home runs. He finished 18th among third baseman with 12 home runs. Sure, a little more power would be nice. But his .321 batting average was second only to Miguel Cabrera among third basemen. This came after Johnson hit .361 last spring.

• A healthy Ramiro Pena. The Braves signed him last winter as a utility infielder. Then they discovered he could actually hit. Pena was on the verge of supplanting Uggla as the every day second baseman until a shoulder injury ended his season. He's expected to be fully recovered by opening day. A healthy spring training will ease concerns about the depth of the infield.

--Guerry Clegg is an independent columnist. He can be reached at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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