Braves enter spring seeking more from young core
Freeman leads group of familiar faces in Atlanta's quest to build on successful 2013
ATLANTA -- After a relatively quiet winter, the Braves will go to Spring Training with a roster that looks a lot like the one they utilized to notch 96 wins and capture the National League East in comfortable fashion last year.
"Hopefully we come out on top with our young group," first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "We'll be fun to watch."
Having signed an eight-year, $135 million contract last week, Freeman stands as the cornerstone to the future of this youthful Braves bunch that should benefit from the experience gained during last year's memorable regular season and a disappointing, abrupt exit from the postseason.
Since losing to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series, the Braves have bid adieu to their two longest-tenured players -- Tim Hudson and Brian McCann. Though these two veterans will be missed, the club feels good about its returning young core, which features Freeman, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons.
Although the struggles of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla hindered the offense's attempt to live up to lofty expectations last year, the less-heralded pitching staff provided the necessary compensation on the way to producing the game's best team ERA.
Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran will continue to anchor the rotation. The dominant Craig Kimbrel will once again headline a talented bullpen that also features Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan and David Carpenter. These four pitchers helped the relief corps set a franchise record last year with a 2.46 ERA.
A quick look at this familiar roster provides reason to better understand why the Braves are approaching the coming season with the confidence that they could prove to be even better than they were in 2013.
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Home vs. Tigers, Feb. 26 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Away vs. Brewers, March 31 at 2:10 p.m. ET
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Will the Braves be able to depend on B.J. Upton and Uggla?
Though the answer will not be learned during Spring Training, this will likely be the most popular topic over the next few weeks and months. As the club's highest-paid players last year, Upton and Uggla each hit below the Mendoza Line and wound up in backup roles for most of September. It is hard to imagine these two veterans any worse than they were last year, but it remains to be seen how much better they could prove to be.
2. Can Evan Gattis serve as the primary catcher throughout the season?
While serving as the club's regular catcher for the first six weeks of last season, Gattis quieted critics who wondered if he was capable of proving serviceable from a defensive standpoint. There never has been any reason to question his power potential, which led to an outfield move last year to find him more playing time. But it will be interesting to see whether Gattis continues to hit enough to compensate for his defensive skills while he develops as a catcher.
3. Will the rotation once again prove formidable without an ace?
Medlen and Minor might not be considered aces, but among all pitchers with at least 40 starts since July 1, 2012, they both rank among the top six in ERA. Teheran has the makings to be an ace, and Brandon Beachy was looking like one before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. Despite the lack of a bona fide ace, this remains a talented young group that should benefit from an extra year of seasoning.
96-66, first in the NL East
Projected batting order
1. RF Jason Heyward:
.254 BA, .349 OBP, .427 SLG, 14 HR, 38 RBI in 2013
2. LF Justin Upton :
.263 BA, .354 OBP, .464 SLG, 27 HR, 70 RBI in 2013
3. 1B Freddie Freeman :
.319 BA, .396 OBP, .501 SLG, 23 HR, 109 RBI in 2013
4. C Evan Gattis :
.243 BA, .291 OBP, .480 SLG, 21 HR, 65 RBI in 2013
5. 3B Chris Johnson :
.321 BA, .358 OBP, .457 SLG, 12 HR, 68 RBI in 2013
6. 2B Dan Uggla :
.179 BA, .309 OBP, .362 SLG, 22 HR, 55 RBI in 2013
7. CF B.J. Upton :
.184 BA, .268 OBP, .289 SLG, 9 HR, 26 RBI in 2013
8. SS Andrelton Simmons :
.248 BA, .296 OBP, .396 SLG, 17 HR, 59 RBI in 2013
1. Kris Medlen, 15-12, 3.11 ERA in 2013
2. Mike Minor, 13-9, 3.21 ERA in 2013
3. Julio Teheran, 14-8, 3.20 ERA in 2013
4. Brandon Beachy, 2-1, 4.50 ERA in 2013
5. Alex Wood, 3-3, 3.13 ERA in 2013
Closer: Craig Kimbrel , 50/54 saves, 1.21 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Jordan Walden , 3.45 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Luis Avilan, 1.52 ERA in 2013
The new guys
Utility Ryan Doumit: While he can play a corner-outfield position or occasionally spell Freeman at first base, Doumit's primary value will come via his ability to serve as a switch-hitting pinch-hitter. The fact that he could catch, if necessary, also allows manager Fredi Gonzalez to feel more comfortable about using Gattis as a pinch-hitter when he's not in the lineup.
RHP Gavin Floyd: In an attempt to gain some depth and insurance in the starting-pitching department, the Braves took a chance on Floyd, who is hoping to return from Tommy John surgery performed last May. If he proves healthy, the right-hander would provide a veteran presence to a young rotation and help the club moderate the workload of Wood, who will be on an innings limit.
RHP Luis Vasquez: The decision to sign Vasquez as a Minor League free agent in early November went virtually unnoticed. But as the 27-year-old right-hander's sidearm delivery consistently produced fastballs that registered above 95 mph in the Dominican Winter League, he became the club's most intriguing offseason acquisition. Vasquez will come to camp with a definite shot to begin the season in Atlanta's bullpen.
Prospects to watch
C Christian Bethancourt: Recognized as the club's catcher of the future, Bethancourt could benefit from spending most or all of this season with Triple-A Gwinnett. The strong-armed 22-year-old will attempt to build on the offensive promise he showed last year in a second straight season with Double-A Mississippi.
RHP J.R. Graham: Now that it appears he has recovered from the right shoulder ailment that sidelined him for most of 2013, Graham has a chance to rekindle the promise he produced during his first big league Spring Training last year. If he remains healthy, there is a strong possibility he will end up in Atlanta's bullpen at some point this year.
RHP Shae Simmons: Though he has not been widely heralded as an elite prospect, this hard thrower has made a strong impression since being selected in the 22nd round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Simmons recorded 82 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings between Class A Rome and Mississippi.
RHP Jason Hursh: Like with Minor and Sean Gilmartin in recent seasons, the Braves have extended Hursh a big league invite less than a year after acquiring him as a first-round Draft selection out of college. The young hurler likely begins the regular season with Class A Advanced Lynchburg or Mississippi.
2B Tommy La Stella: As he hit .343 with a .896 OPS with Mississippi last year, La Stella created reason to wonder if he could soon become Atlanta's starting second baseman. Entering his first big league camp, he has the chance to display his offensive potential and allow the coaching staff to judge if his glove is dependable enough for an eventual everyday role in the Majors.
On the rebound
RHP Beachy: After an attempt to return from Tommy John surgery led to frustration and another cleanup surgery, Beachy spent this winter regaining strength and confidence in his right elbow. If he proves healthy and effective, he could be a key contributor. Beachy was leading the Majors with a 2.00 ERA in June 2012 when he learned that the elbow needed to be surgically repaired.
INF Ramiro Pena: Though he started just 18 games, Pena proved to be one of Atlanta's most valuable assets before he was forced to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery in June. His presence as a switch-hitting pinch-hitter and versatile defender will again be much appreciated by Gonzalez.
INF Tyler Pastornicky: Pastornicky, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in August, expects a full recovery by the start of the season. If he is healthy, he will provide Gonzalez another solid pinch-hit option and some defensive versatility.
LHP Jonny Venters: Venters is hoping to return from a second Tommy John surgery in June. It is too early to accurately project how effective he could be. But the Braves are holding out hope for Venters to be reintroduced to the success he had in 2010 and '11, when he was one of the game's top left-handed setup men.
C McCann: McCann entered 2013 knowing it could be his last season playing for his hometown team. Now that he is with the Yankees, the Braves can only hope to find the stability he provided at the catcher's position over the past eight seasons.
RHP Hudson: There was some hope that Hudson would return and extend his reign as the club's longest-tenured player. But the Braves were not willing to make the same commitment as the Giants, who signed the veteran hurler to a two-year, $23 million contract in November.
LHP Eric O'Flaherty: Like with Hudson, the Braves were not interested in making a two-year offer to O'Flaherty, who is not expected to return from Tommy John surgery until the latter part of May. The dependable setup man will now attempt to be an asset in Oakland's bullpen.
OF Reed Johnson: This veteran outfielder proved to be one of the game's top pinch-hitters, until he strained his left Achilles in late July. Johnson recently signed a Minor League contract with the Marlins.
LHP Paul Maholm: Maholm tossed 25 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings to begin the 2013 season and then proved inconsistent through the next five months. The veteran hurler, who battled elbow discomfort in September, remains unsigned.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.