ATLANTA (AP) Five things to know about the Atlanta Braves as they start spring training camp:
FRESH STARTS: Two high-priced veterans in need of fresh starts will be in the spotlight. Second baseman Dan Uggla and center fielder B.J. Upton lost their starting jobs last season while hitting below .200. Uggla, who still has two years and $26 million remaining on his contract, has been on an alarming decline, finishing below .240 in three straight seasons.
General manager Frank Wren said Upton may have pressed to show he deserved the biggest free-agent deal in team history – $75.25 million for five years. ”We’re anxious to see B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, like everyone else,” Wren said. ”We’d like to see them bounce back. The rest of our club is pretty much the team that won 96 games last year.”
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FACES OF THE FRANCHISE: Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman were close friends as they rose together through the minor leagues. Now, two years after Chipper Jones’ retirement and in the first season after seven-time All-Star Brian McCann signed with the Yankees, they are the new leaders in the lineup.
Freeman was awarded the biggest contract in team history, an eight-year, $135 million deal after only three full seasons. The first baseman hit .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs and finished fifth in the MVP voting last year. Heyward also avoided arbitration when he agreed to a $13.3 million, two-year deal. He had a slow start last season but took off after being moved to the leadoff spot by manager Fredi Gonzalez.
YOUNG GUNS: The departures of two free agents, right-hander Tim Hudson and left-hander Paul Maholm, leave the Braves with a young rotation headed by Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran.
Right-hander Brandon Beachy led the NL in ERA in 2012 when he was shut down to have elbow ligament replacement surgery. He needed a follow-up procedure to clean up the elbow last year and said this month he now feels no discomfort. A strong spring by Beachy would leave left-hander Alex Wood and veteran right-hander Freddy Garcia to compete for the final spot. Right-hander Gavin Floyd, the top free-agent addition, could return from elbow surgery as early as late May.
GATTIS MOVES UP: Evan Gattis, who hit 21 homers as a rookie, takes over as the starting catcher. He started 38 games at catcher in 2013, fewer than in left field (47). He’ll have help from Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit, the former Pirates starter who returns to the NL after two years in Minnesota. Doumit also can play in the outfield and at first base.
BULLISH ON THE PEN: The bullpen, anchored by elite closer Craig Kimbrel, could be the strength of the team. Kimbrel has 153 saves the last three seasons and the mind-boggling total of 381 strikeouts in 227 1-3 career innings. Left-hander Eric O’Flaherty signed with Oakland but Jonny Venters is expected to make his return from elbow surgery, joining Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro.