Bowman Raises The Big Questions Facing 2014 Atlanta Braves Team

Braves Face Vastly Improved Nationals Team

Thursday, December 26, 2013
Jason Heyward is expected to lead-off again while Freddie Freeman will be counted on to drive in runs.
Jason Heyward is expected to lead-off again while Freddie Freeman will be counted on to drive in runs.
- photo by Tim Evearitt

MLB.com's Mark Bowman looks at the big questions facing the Braves as they enter 2014, anxiously looking forward to building on the success of a new era that was celebrated in September, when the club captured the National League East title. For the most part, this is the same team that won 96 games last season

3em; font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;">1. What should be expected from B.J. Upton? 
After hitting .184 with a .557 OPS during his first season in Atlanta, Upton can take solace in the fact that things can't get much worse. But it remains to be seen how much value the Braves will end up receiving from a player who signed a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract 13 months ago. His struggles could have been a product of the pressure created by the contract or the unfamiliarity he encountered while playing outside the Rays organization for the first time. Whatever the case, the 29-year-old outfielder has a chance to enter this new year with a clean slate and the chance to produce a much different script.

2. Will Dan Uggla rebound in Atlanta? 
If the Braves do not trade Uggla (and there is certainly reason to believe they won't), he will likely come to Spring Training as the projected starting second baseman. How long he holds this role will depend on whether he is able to escape the struggles he has encountered over the past season and a half. Blurred vision led him to endure the most miserable season of his career last year. After having LASIK surgery in August, he was given just 41 plate appearances before the Braves benched him in favor of Elliot Johnson and ultimately left him off the NL Division Series roster. Uggla will enter the new year with a chip on his shoulder. But more importantly, he could also still possess the plate discipline and power potential that has enabled him to produce a .319 on-base percentage and homer once every 23.5 at-bats, even while he has hit just .185 over his past 236 games.

3. Will Evan Gattis be effective as the primary catcher?
It will take time for Gattis to come close to gaining the kind of familiarity McCann had with handling pitchers and certain game situations. But while filling in for McCann during the first six weeks of the 2013 season, Gattis erased doubts about his ability to at least be a serviceable defensive catcher. Like McCann, he is never going to win a Gold Glove. But he has shown that he possesses the footwork and arm strength necessary to not be considered a defensive liability behind the plate.

4. Can the bullpen build off of last year's success?
Doom was forecasted when Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters underwent Tommy John surgery a few days apart in the middle of May. But with Avilan, Walden and Carpenter all proving capable of serving as effective setup men for Kimbrel, the Braves ended up producing a franchise record 2.46 bullpen ERA. With that group and the under-appreciated Anthony Vavaro all set to return, Gonzalez should feel good about his club's ability to consistently hold late-inning leads.

5. Will the "inexperienced" starting rotation once again be a primary asset?
Atlanta's projected rotation does not include a pitcher who has made more than 85 career starts. But as this past season progressed, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran all proved they are capable of being solid front-of-the rotation assets. If Brandon Beachy rebounds from the elbow issues that plagued him last year, the Braves will have four starters who fit this description. Alex Wood, who posted a 0.90 ERA in five August starts, will likely begin the season as the fifth starter. Wood could be shifted to the 'pen if Floyd makes a successful recovery from the elbow reconstruction surgery he underwent seven months ago.

6. Will Jason Heyward be a consistent catalyst at the top of the lineup?
Gonzalez was hesitant to move Heyward to the leadoff spot. But once he did during the final days of July, he saw the decision prove to be a primary reason the club enjoyed a 14-game winning streak. Heyward batted .322 with a .403 on-base percentage in the 30 games he hit first in the Braves' order. Given the fact that he has always possessed great plate discipline and above-average speed, there is little reason to doubt his ability to once again consistently provide Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman with run-producing opportunities.

7. What should be expected from Andrelton Simmons at the plate?
Simmons did not necessarily shock the world with the record-setting defensive metrics he produced this past summer. From the first day he arrived at Spring Training, it was apparent he had the tools to become the game's best defensive shortstop. But, given the fact he had totaled just nine home runs in his previous 1,224 professional plate appearances, it would have been illogical to predict he would homer 17 times. After he did so last season, there is now more reason to be optimistic about the offensive capabilities of this young shortstop, whose power masked the struggles he encountered while attempting to gain better plate discipline. Simmons made some strides in this department, as well, while compiling a .316 on-base percentage after the All-Star break.

8. Can Chris Johnson duplicate last year's offensive production?
Johnson entered this past season widely recognized as the "other" player the Braves got in the deal that brought Justin Upton from Arizona to Atlanta. But the gritty third baseman eventually earned the everyday role at third base and ended up ranking second in the NL with a .321 batting average. Given that he set a franchise record with a .394 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), there is reason to wonder if he'll come back this year and produce something closer to the .276 career batting average he carried into 2013. But as he has proven, he seems to thrive when given a chance to prove his doubters wrong.

9. Will the Braves make another trip to the postseason?
The attempt to win a second straight NL East title will be made challenging by the Nationals, who bolstered their strong rotation with the acquisition of Doug Fister But with a familiar cast returning, the Braves have reason to believe they can build on the success of a 96-win season that was disrupted by significant injuries (Heyward, O'Flaherty and Hudson) and burdened by the struggles of the club's two highest-paid players -- Uggla and B.J. Upton.

---- Source: MLB.com

Tim Hudson is gone. A free agent, Hudson signed a two-year contract with San Francisco.
Tim Hudson is gone. A free agent, Hudson signed a two-year contract with San Francisco.
- Photo2 by Tim Evearitt

Randy Smith: Give Butch Some Credit

You really have to give Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones a lot of credit. When the season ended with a thud in that loss to Vanderbilt, Coach Jones didn't just wallow in his own personal misery, he hit the recruiting trail running full steam ahead. It just so happens that the Vols landed not only the state of Tennessee's top recruit, but offensive lineman Trey Smith from ... (click for more)

Top-Ranked Bradley Uses Fast Start To Beat Baylor

There’s no question that the Bradley Bears are ranked first in the initial state wrestling poll and they proved they deserve to be in that top spot following a 43-30 victory over the Baylor Red Raiders. Baylor is ranked fourth in that first poll and will surely be a force to be reckoned with in Division II as the season progresses, but the Bears are head and shoulders ahead after ... (click for more)

County Schools Prepare To Set Priorities For Next Round Of School Building Funding

County school board members are gearing up to set priorities for the next round of new school construction in Hamilton County. Lee McDade, assistant superintendent, said officials may know by the spring how much money will be available to build new schools or add on to existing ones - or do a combination of both. Board member Rhonda Thurman said a proposal to build a new Chattanooga ... (click for more)

Walker County Will No Longer Have Full-Time County Attorney Under Whitfield Tenure; Will Add Full-Time Communications Director

Incoming Walker County Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said under his administration there will no longer be a full-time county attorney. "We will outsource this service on a fee basis," he said. Mr. Whitfield said he has begun interviewing attorneys who might be able to help out the county from time to time. Don Oliver has long been the county attorney for Walker County ... (click for more)

Vehicle Emissions Testing Causes More Pollution Than It Prevents - And Response

While a noble cause to make sure vehicles are operating efficiently with the minimum amount of pollutants, a simple analysis makes it somewhat evident the VET program in Chattanooga causes more pollution that it prevents.  Though I don't know how many vehicles are tested on an annual basis, if you assume an average round trip of 10 miles to the nearest testing station (five ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Cost Of No Discipline

At the start of the current school year, state education officials gathered at some “state testing task force” when disciplinary records from across Tennessee happened to be revealed. You probably are unaware of this, as it seems to have been kept on the “down low,” but statewide a full 20 percent of the black males in our public schools were suspended at least once during the 2014-2015 ... (click for more)