Braves’ burning questions: Second base
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.