Guerry Clegg commentary: Braves could be contender for NL East despite injuries

March 29, 2014 

Sure, the Atlanta Braves' offseason could have been a little more uplifting. Spring training certainly could have gone more smoothly than losing two-fifths of their starting rotation on consecutive days. But as the 2014 season finally arrives, think back to a year ago. Suppose you started with these givens this time last year:

• Brian McCann would be largely unproductive over the last two months.

• Jason Heyward would slump badly early and would miss about two months due to an appendectomy and a broken jaw.

• Dan Uggla and BJ Upton each would hit under .200.

• Tim Hudson would miss the final two months with a broken ankle.

• Paul Maholm would go 1-3 with a 5.73 earned run average after the All-Star break

• Reserves Jordan Schafer, Ramiro Pena, Tyler Pastornicky and Reed Johnson all would go down with injuries right when they were hot.

Given all of that, would you have projected that team to win 96 games and run away with the NL East? Hardly. Even with pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy out for the season and opening with a patchwork rotation until Mike Minor, Ervin Santana and Gavin Floyd catch up, the Braves still could be strong enough to win the NL East.

Here are four realistic possibilities for this season:

• Jason Heyward busts out. He's due. He turns 24 the first week of the season. He already has hit 73 home runs in 532 big league games. Not exactly Ruthian numbers, mind you, but pretty fair for a young buck.

If Heyward stays healthy and can avoid one of those monstrous slumps he has hit each of the last three years, he can easily hit 35 home runs. Heyward hit .277 as a rookie in 2010 and had 27 home runs in 2012. If he can put it all together, Heyward could hit close to .300 with 35 homers.

• The Upton brothers live up to their 2013 hype. Given that BJ Upton suffered through the worst season of his life, it's easy to forget that one year earlier he posted one of the best seasons of his career. He hit a career-high 28 home runs in 2012. There's no reason he can't return to that form, or even something close to it.

Justin Upton had an unspectacular but solid year. He tied for fourth in the National League with 27 home runs. He needs to improve on his 70 RBI, and he should have more chances batting fifth (at least for now) behind Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson.

• They win a team Triple Crown. They flirted with two-thirds of it last year as Johnson held the batting lead well into September, while Freeman was among the National League RBI leaders.

Johnson ended up 10 percentage points behind Colorado's Michael Cuddyer (.331-.321). Was 2013 a breakout season or a career-year for Johnson? Probably the latter. Even so, Freeman finished third at .319. With Freeman's commitment to just putting the ball in play with runners in scoring position, he's a legitimate candidate to win a batting title.

Freeman might have won the RBI crown if he hadn't missed two weeks with a pulled rib cage muscle. It also hurt his chances that batters ahead of him struggled so much. If Heyward and BJ Upton get on base more, as well at the bottom of the order, Freeman will have more chances to drive in runs.

Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt and Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez tied for the NL home run title last year with 36. Justin Upton hit 27 despite hitting only four in May, June and July. Heyward is also a candidate. He hit 27 homers two years ago.

• Either Julio Teheran or Minor becomes an ace. The Braves haven't had a 20-game winner since 2003. (Bonus points to you if you remembered that it was Russ Ortiz.) Teheran has the stuff and the makeup to be a dominant starter. Minor isn't quite as dominant, but he does have the mental makeup to grind through a long season and give himself a chance to win almost every start.

None of the above should be considered long shots. If even just most of them happen, this could be a very good season.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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