The Braves are loaded at just about every position heading into spring training, with second base one of the notable question marks.
Braves infielders Tyler Pastornicky (season-ending injury -- left) and Dan Uggla (career lows across the board) would like to forget about the 2013 campaign -- for different reasons.
Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports
By Jay Clemons
On the heels of a 96-win campaign and National League East title last season, there aren't a surplus of question marks surrounding the 2014 Atlanta Braves, a group that's loaded with bankable pitchers and hitters.
There are, however, some areas to shore up at second base -- ranging from the incumbent starter's long-term viability ... to the developmental timelines of the supporting personnel and top prospects.
Here are four burning questions involving the Braves and second base:
1. What will become of Dan Uggla this year?
The Braves shouldn't feel compelled to replace Uggla -- who was left off the club's NLDS roster last October -- early on, if he struggles mightily in April and May. As demonstrated last year, this club has a cool knack for absorbing some noteworthy slow starts, without it hindering the bottom line (read: winning).
And with an existing contract that calls for two seasons and roughly $26 million, it's hard to see how Uggla's deal would be appetizing to potential trade partners, if he doesn't immediately resemble the power-hitting dynamo of 2006-11 (averaging 32 homers/91 RBI).
In 2013, his age-33 season, Uggla incurred career lows with runs (60), hits (80), doubles (10), homers (22), RBI (55), batting average (.179), on-base percentage (.309), slugging (.362) and OPS (.671). Of similar ignominy, Uggla also matched his career-high tally of 171 strikeouts -- with 30-plus each for April, May, June and July.
On the positive side, Uggla nearly sliced his strikeout splits in half for August and September, fanning only 39 times over the two months. (Negating that, he batted .083 in August, with zero homers.)
Heading into last spring training, Uggla's weight loss was a popular talking point for the media; and given the lackluster, short-term results of that transformation, it'll be interesting to see what adjustments are made, body-wise, this February.
After all, throughout his MLB career (Marlins/Braves), Uggla had never been confused with any of the game's purest hitters -- his strengths usually involve homers and getting on base. At this juncture, though, there are sustainable concerns with both categories:
**Last June, Uggla drew 20 walks ... only to follow that up with 31 total for July, August and September.
**For August and September, Uggla racked up only one homer and four RBI (97 at-bats/124 plate appearances).
Charting the first month of 2014, what are the reasonable expectations for Uggla?
Of his first eight seasons, he posted only one April batting average north of .272 (2010 with Florida); and in that span, he produced an OBP of .300-plus just five times. Curiously, he's had better lineup protection, name-wise, with the Braves ... and yet, he was markedly more prolific with the Marlins during April.
2. Does Atlanta have a rock-solid Plan B at second base, should Uggla get injured or falter?
If Kelly Johnson (16 HRs, 52 RBI, .235 BA, .305 OBP with the Rays last year) can be penciled in as the Yankees' second baseman, presumably for 145-150 starts, then Tyler Pastornicky can attain a similar status in the majors.
He just needs a clean opportunity.
Heading into his age-24 season, Pastornicky (.300 BA, .323 OBP in 30 MLB at-bats last year) isn't that far removed from when various scouting publications hailed him as the Braves' shortstop of the future (predating Andrelton Simmons, of course).
In that rear-view mirror, there are also residual images of his 2011 production in the minors (two levels), with cumulative tallies of seven homers, 65 runs, 27 steals, .314 batting and a .359 OBP over 115 games.
At spring training last year, Pastornicky drew praise (from this reporter) for his uncanny fielding prowess, at second base, during team infield drills. Braves coach Terry Pendleton is a wiz with the fungo bat ... and yet, Pastornicky had little difficulty in handling a bevy of line drives and in-between hops.
Plus, he demonstrated a great capacity for turning double plays from the 4- slot.
Speaking of fielding, it should be noted that FanGraphs calculated Andrelton Simmons' "defensive runs saved" quotient as plus-41 last year (best in baseball) ... with Uggla garnering a minus-19 in the same category (third-worst among regular second basemen).
Given the Braves' need for more flexibility on the base paths, Pastornicky could eventually be a permanent asset at second base -- although, at this point, the club most likely favors his tremendous versatility with second base, shortstop, third base and even outfield (center-field cameo last year).
3. What kind of impact might Ramiro Pena have with the parent club?
Before going under the knife for season-ending shoulder surgery last year, the 28-year-old Pena was a productive, versatile asset for the Braves, logging 46 games at four different spots/roles (second base, third base, shortstop and pinch-hitter).
Of equal importance, he batted .305 when partaking in Atlanta's 33 wins ... and all three of his homers -- including a two-run, 10th-inning blast against the Nationals on April 12 -- came in victory.
That go-ahead homer against Washington played a significant role in helping Atlanta rocket to a 12-1 start in the National League.
Assuming full health, Pena stands as a reasonable lock to make the Braves' Opening Day roster and incur a consistent rhythm to middle- or corner-infield playing time, either as a starter or established reserve in the latter innings.
For what it's worth, Pena had a stellar line of .341 batting/.362 OBP/.568 slugging in 24 home games last year (eight starts).
4. Is touted prospect Tommy La Stella a viable threat for MLB playing time before Sept. 1?
For his age-24 season, La Stella enjoyed across-the-board success at High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi, posting stellar tallies of five homers, 45 RBI, 39 runs, eight steals, .356 batting, a .444 OBP and .936 OPS in just 88 games.
La Stella wasn't a one-trick pony in the minors, essentially matching or eclipsing his 2013 output during the previous season (Rookie League/High-A), boding well for a stable road to breaking into the majors.
MLB.com uses descriptions like "hard-nosed" and "gamer" when touting La Stella's skill set. The site also celebrates the left-handed hitter's penchant for getting on base and rarely striking out -- qualities that might have been apt for Dan Uggla during his formative years in pro ball, as well.
From a game-log perspective, La Stella had a crossover hitting streak of 21 games that covered his time in Double-A ball (August 2013) and his participation in the Arizona Fall League. During that prodigious stretch, La Stella batted .330 with eight runs, 12 RBI and nine extra-base hits (one homer).
In a perfect world, though, La Stella would likely benefit from a full season of Double- or Triple-A ball, in hopes of establishing consistency within a scope of 400-plus at-bats.