COMMENTARY | It's understandable that you may have forgotten, given the mounds of snow covering most of the country, but baseball is back.
For the real contenders, such as the Atlanta Braves, spring training brings about a chance to work off the winter rust and iron out the issues of a busy offseason.
After getting bounced from the playoffs early two years in a row, the Braves know that simply making the postseason will no longer be good enough. Expectations have risen and only a World Series crown will satisfy the aspirations of a fan base eager to see their club back on top in 2014.
Here are the top five Atlanta Braves storylines heading into spring training 2014:
Potential Freddie Freeman Contract Hangover
Freddie Freeman just got paaiiiddd!
Instead of working out escalating one-year deals during his three arbitration seasons, the Braves inked their All-Star first baseman to a massive eight-year, $135 million deal that will keep Freeman hugging teammates in Atlanta until at least 2021.
While fans are undoubtedly ecstatic that they will not have to worry about losing Freeman to the McCann-vulturing New York Yankees any time soon, some players do have a tendency to grip the bat a little tighter and try to prove they were worth all the extra cheddar during the first season after signing a headline-making new deal.
Freeman raised his game to the next level in 2013, as he posted career highs in average (.319), OBP (.396), slugging (.501), RBIs (109) and Hits (176). His 23 home runs marked the third straight season Freeman left the yard at least 20 times, but fans will being living in perpetual terror that he could be inflicted with the infamous B.J. Upton disease and suddenly flounder trying to live up his new contract.
B.J. Upton / Dan Uggla
Speaking of the aforementioned B.J. Upton, the 2014 season will find two former All-Stars trying to remember how to tie their spikes again as Dan Uggla and Upton will look to rebound from abysmal individual seasons.
Despite the fact that Uggla and Upton sported the two worst batting averages in all of baseball last season, the Braves still managed to win 96 games to take their first division crown since 2005. If either Upton or Uggla can return to form in 2014, fans have to feel good about Atlanta's chances again this season.
Although no one would know it based off last year's performances, both players have the potential to be the best at their individual positions. Uggla came to Atlanta in 2010 after hitting .287 with 33 home runs and 105 RBIs in his final season with the Marlins. And, before last year, Upton had produced two consecutive 20/20 seasons while averaging 33 stolen bases per season.
Perhaps the biggest storyline of the spring will be Atlanta's starting staff. Much had been made about the Braves' desire to add a front line starter to replace Tim Hudson, who signed with the San Francisco Giants in free agency, but named like Jeff Samardzija and David Price stayed put and Atlanta was only able to add Gavin Floyd to their rotation.
Although Floyd has shown the ability to be a No. 1 arm, he has not posted an ERA under 4.06 since 2008 and will not be available until May at the earliest while he recovers from Tommy John surgery that cost him most of the 2013 season.
Aside from the newest addition, the Braves need to get Brandon Beachy fully healthy again, as he looks to return to being the pitcher who tossed a 2.00 ERA in 2012 before his elbow injury.
The staff will still be anchored by Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen, but once interesting race could be the fight between David Hale and Alex Wood for the final spot in the rotation. While both could see some action with the starting staff this season while Floyd and Beachy recover, one , if not both men, should help add even more depth to the MLB's best bullpen from 2013.
Evan Gattis Takes Over for Brian McCann
It was expected, but that did nothing to shield the blow of losing Brian McCann to the New York Yankees in free agency. The Yankees gave McCann a five-year, $85 million contract, and one beard shaving later McCann was wearing pinstripes.
The Braves now turn their catching duties over full time to Evan Gattis, who exploded onto the MLB scene as a 26-year-old rookie in 2013. El Oso Blanco cracked 21 home runs while splitting time between the outfield and behind the plate, and his .357 average in the playoffs was one of the lone bright spots for the Braves in their quick four-game series.
Although Gattis started strong with a .281 average and 12 home runs during the first two months of the season, he hit just .162 between June 1 and Aug. 30. The team does not yet know how Gattis will respond to the riggers of being an everyday catcher.
The team did sign veteran Ryan Doumit to spell Gattis some behind the dish, but, like Gattis, Doumit did most of his best work in the outfield last season.
The Craig Kimbrel Saga
So, Craig, how was your offseason?
The Braves and their closer, Craig Kimbrel, have to air their difference in front of arbiter before Kimbrel will be suiting up for Atlanta this season. After posting 138 saves in his first three full seasons of service, Kimbrel was looking for the richest first-year arbitration contract ever awarded to a closer at $9 million. Atlanta, on the other hand, was only offering $6.5 million.
It is yet to be seen whether these tough negotiations will have any impact for Kimbrel on the field, or if Atlanta will be forced into looking to move their All-Star closer at some point in the near future. But Kimbrel will certainly be one of the most closely scrutinized Braves this season.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Braves for over 20 years. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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- Atlanta Braves
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