Braves waiting for Dan Uggla’s big season

Two years ago, when the Braves locked up Dan Uggla with a five-year, $62 million deal following a November trade, the general consensus was the team had solidified the middle of its lineup for years to come. At the time, it was the biggest payout the organization had given to a player in nearly a decade.

In 2012, that contract is a headache.

The power-hitting second baseman has not performed up to the level of an eight-digit salary in Atlanta – hitting just .227 (including a 103 OPS+, just barely above league average) with 55 home runs. Though his defense and base running were respectable in 2012, he just cannot find the same pop with his bat that he had when he was a standout for the Miami Marlins. At this point, it looks as if the Braves went into the trade market and bought high. Too high.

And even so, Uggla was an All-Star last season on the strength of fan voting — there’s no denying his popularity in Atlanta, despite his numbers — and the relative dearth of quality second basemen in baseball. Despite his offensive inefficiency, Uggla has been the 10th-most valuable second-bagger in baseball (5.9 Wins Above Replacement), just behind Neil Walker, Aaron Hill and Danny Espinosa.

It’s safe to say that the Braves organization will never see Uggla make the leap into the realm of AL East heavyweights Robinson Cano (Yankees), Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox) or Ben Zobrist (Rays), but if he could put together a complete season it’s not a stretch to assume he could get back within the upper echelon of the game’s second basemen.

Of course, Walker, Hill and Espinosa are not due more than $13 million next season. The three of them won’t even make that type of money combined.

1. Can Uggla cut down on his strikeout numbers?

Dan Uggla struck out in 26.7 percent of his at-bats in 2012, more than any other everyday players for the Braves. Of hitters receiving at least 100 plate appearances last season, only free-swinging Juan Francisco, David Ross and Eric Hinske whiffed at a higher rate.

The difference is that Uggla not only makes more money than all of those players combined but that, for the most part, he was slotted near the middle of the lineup. That’s why he was brought to Atlanta: To knock in runs. As anyone, including Uggla, will tell you, it’s tough to do that with three strikes.

Over the past two seasons, only Espinosa (27 percent) and former Brave Kelly Johnson have struck out more among the league’s second basemen.

Uggla offsets his strikeout totals by being one of baseball’s best middle infielders at drawing walks, but that’s not what he was brought in to do. He was meant to be a cornerstone. His power numbers, at times, reiterate why.

Of the top-five second basemen in home runs last season, only Milwaukee’s Rickie Weeks struck out at a similar rate.

Don’t be like Rickie Weeks.

2. Will Uggla’s fielding remain above average?

OK, there’s a second part to this question: What the heck happened last season?

It’s safe to assume that since his rookie season, Uggla’s work in the field did not garner any Gold Glove recognition. But then, something changed, and suddenly his fielding was a more efficient part of his game than his hitting. Here are Uggla’s UZR/150 numbers — a metric that measures defensive performance in terms of runs saved above average for every 150 games played — throughout his career:

2006: 5.7
2007: -11.1
2008: 0.8
2009: -9.6
2010: -7.4
2011: -11.4
2012: 1.9

Uggla’s defense underwent a fairly steady regression from 2008 through 2011, even posting a league-worst UZR/150 among qualified second basemen in his first season in Atlanta, before surprisingly bouncing back to just above average. Advanced defensive statistics do tend to fluctuate, but if Uggla can continue to play at a respectable level in the field while improving his hitting, perhaps $13 million won’t hurt quite as much.

Regression toward the mean would suggest Uggla’s numbers will once again decline (career UZR/150 of -4.5). 

Mathematics, however, does not account for telephone-pole forearms. So anything is possible here.

3. Will he finally live up to his contract?

In the end, this is the ultimate question facing Uggla.

Being the highest-paid player on a middle-of-the-pack (financially speaking) MLB franchise comes with its own set of pressures and responsibility. And it’s not like the Braves will have much choice this season. In past years, the multi-purpose Martin Prado could be plugged in during a slump, but it looks as though his hands will be full at third base, pending an offseason move by general manager Frank Wren. Brooks Conrad is gone. It’s Uggla out there, with fill-ins from Tyler Pastornicky possible.

This is a pivotal season for Braves management, which faces upcoming arbitration dates with its young core of Jason Heyward, Kris Medlen, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel in 2013. This is the final season Atlanta gets to keep that quartet for less than $1 million apiece. Decisions must be made, and the cutting could start at the top. Uggla’s contract runs through 2015, but if he does not start producing at his Marlins level, Wren & Co., might start shopping.

That’s not to say Uggla deserves to be traded as soon as possible, it’s just a business decision the Braves might be forced to make if things do not improve.

Thirteen million dollars is a heavy burden. Uggla needs to carry it a little higher in 2013.