Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Five burning questions about the 2015 Braves

John Hart was right about at least one thing. In retooling nearly half of the big league roster while rebuilding the farm system, Hart observed, "Let's be honest. This team finished 29th in offense. It's not like I'm breaking up the '27 Yankees."

But the bigger concern for Braves fans -- especially those all too familiar with the likes of Ozzie Virgil and Dion James -- is that Hart has reassembled the '88 Braves. That team was also offensively challenged and finished at or near the bottom of near

ly every offensive category. But the fielding was just as bad -- they led the National League with 151 errors and the pitching was not much better. Rick Mahler led the staff with nine wins.

Surely this team won't be that bad. The pitching and defense are pretty good, maybe very good. And this year's lineup is the '27 Yankees compared to that '88 bunch.

So they shouldn't be that bad. And the future does look promising. But what about the present? Here's a look at five burning questions for the 2015 Braves.

Will the Braves muster any offense?

Logically, it would seem that the offense could be historically abysmal. They were 26th in batting average and 29th in scoring last season and traded three of their top four offensive players in right fielder Jason Heyward, left fielder Justin Upton and catcher Evan Gattis.

But there is hope.

If Nick Markakis is still the player he was with Baltimore the last two seasons, the production from right field will be about the same. It could even be better if offseason neck surgery allows Markakis to return to his 2012 form when he hit .298 with 13 homers and 54 RBI.

Second baseman Jace Peterson, acquired from San Diego in the Upton deal, opened eyes in spring training. He has hit consistently in the minors, so maybe it wasn't a fluke. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons and catcher Christian Bethancourt are young players who looked much improved in spring training. If they can carry that over into the season, it would stabilize the bottom third of the order.

There's still big offensive holes at third base, left field and center field. The upside is not very high. The downside could be atrocious.

Can Freddie Freeman carry the offense?

One of the somewhat overlooked problems the Braves had last year was Freeman struggling trying to do too much. His batting average dropped 20 percentage points, from .319 to .289, and his RBIs dropped from 109 (and 94 the year before) to 78. His walks and strikeouts both went up. That's an indication that teams pitched around him. If they did that knowing they'd have to face Upton and Gattis, imagine what it might be like with Jonny Gomes and Chris or Kelly Johnson behind Freeman.

On the positive side, Freeman should have more opportunities this year. The top of the order with Eric Young Jr. and Peterson should be stronger.

It's also time for Freeman to exert more clubhouse leadership. That may not be his personality, but it comes with the territory of being the anchor of the lineup.

Is the pitching strong enough to carry the weak offense?

The upside is very promising. But there are a lot more questions than many people realize. Once again, Mike Minor will begin the season on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. The worry is that Minor might alter his mechanics, even unintentionally, to avoid a recurrence of shoulder issues.

Trevor Cahill, just acquired from Arizona, is coming off a poor season, which is why the Diamondbacks agreed to pay $6.8 million of his $12 million salary to get rid of him. Eric Stults isn't going to win 15 games. But he could be a capable fourth starter.

Even the top three starters -- Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller and Alex Wood -- are not without questions. All are young pitchers who have been very good at times. They could be even better with experience. But it is just as possible that hitters could start figuring them out and they could take a step backward. Lest we forget, Jair Jurrjens was an All-Star at age 23 and Tommy Hanson won 45 games in his first four seasons.

The bullpen is very suspect. That doesn't mean it will be bad. But there are many question marks. The back end seems solid with veterans Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli setting up Craig Kimbrel. But Johnson was horrible last year and Grilli was only average. Luis Avilan struggled late in spring training, so it is hard to have much confidence in him.

They basically dumped Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter, moves they may eventually regret.

Who will be biggest surprise this season?

Two candidates come to mind. First, there's Peterson, who has emerged from being a utility guy hoping to make the roster to -- for now at least -- the starting second baseman. Some of the surprise effect may have worn off. But if Peterson's minor league numbers are any indication, he could become an impactful player. He hit .298 and stole 109 bases over the past three seasons at four different stops. He's also a gap hitter and had 13 triples in 2013 and six (in only 86 games) last year.

Is there a realistic chance to make the playoffs?

That depends on your idea of "realistic." Let's start with the assumption that 87 wins would be good enough to contend for the second wild card spot.

Doable? Yes. But so many things have to go right. Simmons and Bethancourt have to mature as hitters. Chris Johnson has to be more consistent. They have to get some production out of left and center fields. Markakis has to be healthy. Peterson has to be for real. The pitching is counting on bounce-back years from several guys -- Minor, Cahill, Grilli, Johnson, Avilan.

The bottom line: They might not contend for a wildcard spot.

But scraping out a winning season in what is unofficially a rebuilding year for the whole organization would have to be considered a success. And that's very doable.

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

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