COMMENTARY | We're only a month away from spring training, and soon equipment trucks will start making the journey to either Florida or Arizona.
For baseball fans this is the most exciting time of the year. There is hope and optimism surrounding every team -- except for the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs.
As for the Braves, they know this club is good enough to make the playoffs as a wild-card team, and with some help could even compete for the division. The Braves have a surplus of young talent on this team that is ready to take over and excel during the 2013 season. Those players include guys like Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Kris Medlen, and Mike Minor.
The future of the Braves is looking bright with this core group, especially with the addition of B.J. Upton during the offseason.
But despite all that talent, I think most would agree that the 2013 season will depend on how well veterans like Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Tim Hudson bounce back.
While Hudson doesn't have much to prove after putting up solid numbers in 2012 despite missing the start of the season, the pitching rotation will rely on him being healthy and in the lineup. He'll turn 38 this year and is in the last year of his contract. I think he would like to continue playing, and I believe the Braves would want to keep him around, but he needs to prove he is healthy and effective.
The two guys the Braves will be watching the most to turn things around will be McCann and Uggla.
Despite his hard-working nature and the fan friendly guy that Uggla is, I know many Braves fans are starting to weaken their stance on the second baseman. After signing a $62 million deal with the Braves, Uggla has posted back-to-back sub-par seasons.
In his two seasons with the Braves he's combined for a .227 average and 324 strikeouts. Fans are used to the strikeouts and can put up with them when he's hitting 30-plus home runs but after failing to do so for the first time since his rookie season in 2006, you begin to wonder if Uggla is on a decline.
Uggla is the kind of guy that everyone cheers for because he plays the game the right way. He gives it everything he has when he's on the field. But the Braves are going to need his right-handed bat this year. And, more important, Dan Uggla needs his bat this year.
The front office will be as patient as they can but with only two years left on his contract after the 2013 season, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Braves eat a large chunk of that money if they can ship him out.
For the sake of Uggla and Braves fans, let's hope he gets back on track this year. With those arms, he should be able to run into at least 25 home runs.
The most dramatic storyline of the 2013 season will be about the performance of catcher Brian McCann. The six-time All-Star and winner of five Silver Slugger Awards has been a staple in this lineup for the past seven years. Many believed he would become the new face of the franchise.
But after battling injuries the previous couple of season, especially dealing with eye problems, McCann's batting average was .230 in 2012, which is well below his career average of .279.
A catcher's career can often be short because of the strains from sitting behind the plate and with McCann set to become a free agent after this season, along with the fact that top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt is just about ready for big-league action, the Braves might be willing to part ways with McCann.
That thought almost seemed ludicrous a few years ago. McCann is a fan favorite in Atlanta, much like Uggla, but fans need to see performance and the fact is both of these guys seem to be on a decline.
There is no doubt the Braves, along with many other organizations, will be watching to see how McCann rebounds this season. This will be the most important year of his career. If he puts up another 25-plus home runs with an average around .270, the Braves can almost kiss him goodbye because the New York Yankees will be prepared to offer him big money.
But if McCann does return to form it will coincide with the Braves having an outstanding year.
The young talent coming up through the organization is nice and will ultimately carry the Braves this year. But in order for this team to step up to the next level, they'll need veteran leadership and production from guys like Hudson, Uggla and McCann.
Jake Mastroianni has written for several websites pertaining to the Braves and baseball in general. He also has experience working in media relations for minor league baseball, as well as at the collegiate level.
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