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December 20, 2014

T.K. Greer: It's been a tough spring for Braves

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Posted: Saturday, March 29, 2014 4:29 pm

Spring is supposed to be a season of renewal. A rebirth. A fresh start.

It’s when we emerge from the cold, dark days of winter and find beauty in the new growth around us.

That in no way, shape or form is how this spring training has gone for the Atlanta Braves.

Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy — 40 percent of the scheduled opening day rotation — have been lost to season-ending surgery. Reliever Cory Gearrin might be joining them soon.

Add the offseason changes that include Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Eric O’Flaherty finding new homes, and the flowers on this side of the barn sure look like they could still use a little more sun.

But right now, everyone has hope. That’s what the start of the Major League Baseball season brings to us at the end of every March. The hope that this year can be different — or at least better — than the past year, even for a team seemingly decimated by injuries.

So where is the hope for this year’s Atlanta Braves team? Let’s find a little as we get ready to watch this year’s team open the season in Milwaukee tomorrow.

They can’t be this bad

Here’s some numbers for you: .181/.290/.304. That was the collective batting line (batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage) for Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton in 839 at bats in 2013. How is that a positive, you ask? Atlanta won the division and made the playoffs despite playing both players in the lineup almost all season. That’s how good Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson and the rest of the team was (and perhaps showed the weakness of the NL East, too).

But we’re here to be positive. Uggla is a career .246 hitter who averages 30 homers and 90 RBIs a year while getting on base 34 percent of the time. B.J. Upton is a career .248 hitter who averages 19 home runs, 70 RBIs and 36 stolen bases a year. Yes, Uggla has been in decline for two years now. Yes, Upton looked as lost as any baseball player you’ll ever see a year ago. But both have had semi-encouraging springs. If they just reach their career averages, Atlanta’s offense becomes significantly better.

The breakout

Everybody has been waiting on Heyward to hit that next level of superstardom, and all signs point to this year being his year.

Sure, it’d be nice to have him hitting third or fourth in the order in an RBI spot, but Heyward found a niche in the leadoff spot last year, albeit with a small sample size — .322 batting average, .401 on base percentage and six home runs in just 30 games. So, why mess with a good thing?

Heyward has continued to hit this spring with a batting average north of .300 and four homers. If he can find a way to steal more than 25 bags and avoid the freak injuries, the 24-year-old is going to have a monster year. Just one request, Jason — no head-first slides!

The newcomer

When Medlen and Beachy went down, Atlanta general manager Frank Wren was lucky Ervin Santana was still out on the free agent market.

Nobody’s going to confuse Santana with Cy Young, but the 30-year-old righty brings stability and savvy to the Atlanta rotation. He is a career American league pitcher with a 4.19 ERA. With the weaker NL lineups, there’s no reason he can’t shave at least half a run or better off of that.

He also eats up quality innings, averaging 215 innings pitched per season in his nine-year career. He has been prone to gopher balls, but the bigger home park in Atlanta should help him post solid numbers and be a winner for the Braves.

What about all the questions?

Can Evan Gattis catch five or six games a week? Who is going to set up for closer Craig Kimbrel? Should Chris Johnson really hit cleanup? Should B.J. Upton play every day, let alone hit second?

Is Julio Teheran ready to be a No. 1 starter? Do Alex Wood and David Hale belong in the rotation? Can Uggla not miss every pitch he swings at on the outside part of the plate by a foot? Can Justin Upton make consistent contact? Will Mike Minor be OK? Can Gavin Floyd come back from his elbow surgery to help the rotation later this spring?

OK, we tried to keep it positive. Yes, there are a lot of questions, some of which it seems like we already know the answer.

The good news is that the NL East Division is weak. The Nationals will be strong and have the better starting pitching on paper now that Medlen and Beachy are out. But Atlanta is talented enough to compete for a wild card, and maybe even surprise the Nationals and win the division as it did a year ago.

So don’t count the Braves out yet. After all, spring is more than the season of renewal. It’s the season of hope, too.

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