Braves Roundtable: Important questions entering spring training

In 2014, the Atlanta Braves will attempt to defend their NL East title for the first time since 2006.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

FOX Sports South’s Braves writers Cory McCartney, Zach Dillard and Jay Clemons tackled some of the biggest questions facing the Braves entering the 2014 season. Here are their takes entering spring training:

MCCARTNEY: Fifth in the majors and first in the National League with 181 home runs, the Braves were also third overall and tops in the NL with 1,384 strikeouts. It was the third straight season that they had broken the franchise record for Ks (1,260 in ’11; 1,289 in ’12), meaning the feast-or-famine ways aren’t going away.

That means the pitching staff, which bailed the offense out time and again in those famine days, allowing three runs or less in 75 games (third-most in the NL), will likely need a repeat and it puts even more pressure on the top half of that rotation.

Sure, solidifying the back end — Brandon Beachy is looking to prove he’s healthy after complications from his return from Tommy John surgery last season and Alex Wood will try to build off a strong first 11 starts — is paramount. But that’s on the basis that Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran can hold things down in the 1-3 spots. All three averaged at least 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings and ERA of 3.20 or less and replicating that consistency will be key in setting the tone this season.

CLEMONS: Per usual, this conversation begins and ends with starting pitching.

The Braves’ front four of Minor (13-9, 3.21 ERA, 181 Ks), Teheran (14-8, 3.20 ERA, 170 Ks), Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA, 157 Ks) and Beachy certainly has a wealth of talent and high-ceiling potential, but it’s also an ambiguous quartet — in terms of knowing how the pecking order will shake out by season’s end.

Throw in the vagueness of which hurler will occupy the No. 5 slot after Memorial Day — upon Gavin Floyd’s injury-rehab return — and it’s hard to declare, with full confidence, which Atlanta starters will collect 17 or more starts before October.

Last year, the Braves were fortunate to keep their five-man rotation (including Tim Hudson) intact through the end of July — enduring longer than any other National League staff in that realm. The group collected 21 or more starts.

But it’s hard to get that lucky, injury-wise, in back-to-back seasons, just like it’s a tad ambitious to ask every Atlanta starter to walk less than 50 batters again. That aside, continuity and consistency are potential hallmarks with the 2014 rotation, a group that needs to match the overall production of their divisional brethren (NL East):

** The Nationals (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister) arguably boast the best 1-4 rotation in baseball.

** And with the late addition of A.J. Burnett (3.03 ERA, 209 strikeouts with Pittsburgh), the Phillies’ front four (Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Burnett) has the chance to outperform the Braves before it’s all said and done.

DILLARD: I’ll go in an opposite direction here, and put the bulk of the importance on the offense improving from a season ago. There is so much to like about the Braves’ young corps of pitching talent, including some up-and-coming prospects that may not get a chance to break into the league this season if the big league club stays healthy, that there’s safety in consistency there. The starting staff has a chance to be one of the youngest and best in baseball. Does that staff and bullpen need to put up similar or better numbers if the team is going to challenge for a World Series title? Absolutely. But it’s a fairly safe bet that the Braves pitching numbers will finish around the top-10 in baseball once more.

The offense, on the other hand, is the wild card.

The B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla struggles are well-documented (and will be discussed later on). Jason Heyward missed significant time. The bench was ravaged by injuries, and every starter not named Chris Johnson saw time on the DL. There were built-in excuses all over the lineup, and yet the Braves still finished ninth in weighted runs created and above league average in OPS+.

So can Justin Upton be more consistent? How far along is Andrelton Simmons’ bat? Have they rectified the leadoff spot with Heyward? Can Freddie Freeman put up those kinds of numbers season after season? What will a full season of Gattis at-bats do for the team? If any of these questions produce positive answers, just how good could the Braves actually be? Pretty good.

The offense will need to be better if the team wants to compete for another division crown and keep up in the NL race with the likes of Washington, St. Louis and Los Angeles. The NL East is stocked with arms, but not necessarily great lineups, and if the Braves can carve out an edge in that department, it will go a long way toward claiming their second-consecutive division title.

CLEMONS: Heading into his age-29 campaign, B.J. Upton still has plenty of time to rectify the cumulative drudgery of the 2013 season — featuring across-the-board reductions with runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers, RBI, steals and batting average.

Is he ever going to bat .300 again (2007 with Tampa Bay)? Probably not. Is he still a candidate for 40-plus steals (2008-10 with the Rays)? Once again, most likely not.

But we’re still talking about a premium athlete who stays in excellent physical shape, year-round. We’re talking about one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. And we’re still talking about an in-his-prime asset with a sterling track record of 20/20 seasons (three times).

Everybody is entitled to a bad year in baseball; and right now, Upton gets a mulligan for 2013.

Not that it mattered anyway … since last year’s Braves still scored eight or more runs a staggering 23 times.

MCCARTNEY: Uggla is what he is at this point, a latter day Rob Deer as the benchmark for the Three True Outcomes (strikeout, home run, walk). At 33, a change in that narrative seems unlikely.

As for Upton, simply put, it can’t get much worse. He hit a career-low .184/.268/.557 in the first season of the biggest free-agent contract in Braves history. He struggled to stay in the starting lineup and in his lowest at-bats (391) since his rookie season of 2006, had his highest strikeout rate (33.9 percent). But there were positives, most notably his defense — he had two DRS, the best total of his career — and stole 12 bases in 126 game, a rate of one every 10.5 games that is his best ever.

A few weeks ago, hitting coach Scott Fletcher discussed the likelihood that Upton was pressing, trying to live up to his aforementioned contract. An offseason to recharge could help him to become more in line with the player Atlanta was expecting when it signed him.

DILLARD: After three years, the Dan Uggla trend has all but set itself in stone — the previously-mentioned Three True Outcomes. The turnaround has not arrived since he put on a Braves uniform — save for that, in retrospect, miraculous 33-game hitting streak in 2011 — and time is running short.

Upton, on the other hand, has time. The Braves did not sign the talented outfielder to a one-year deal hoping he could instantly deliver a mercenary title; they gave him a lucrative five-year contract betting that the value would pay off over time. He dug himself into a hole last season, one that will take plenty of production just to get back to ground level, but even if he reverts to his career averages the entire Atlanta offense will be much better off. Here’s a look at the struggling stars’ drop-offs last season compared to the averages from their previous two seasons:

The larger drop-off, or variation, in Upton’s numbers could be considered a positive in this case: he’s more likely to progress back to his mean, whereas Uggla hovered much closer to his new normal. Overall, it’s almost impossible to think B.J. Upton will put up similar numbers in 2014. He’s the easy choice here.

DILLARD: Over the course of a 162-game schedule, this answer is a matter of short-term preference, and the Braves organization has proven time and again that experience matters.

This would point to Medlen, the staff’s newly-appointed "veteran", as the Opening Day choice, just as he’s received the past two Game One playoff starts (if you could hand that label to the 2012 wild card game). This, of course, ignores the fact that Minor has pitched just five fewer career innings than Medlen and was the organization’s best pitcher in 2013, both in the regular season (204 2/3 innings, 3.4 WAR, 3.37 FIP) and in the team’s lone playoff win.

(Also of note: Given that Atlanta starts off the season on a six-game road swing, whoever starts Game No. 2 in Milwaukee will likely get the home-opening start against the Mets on April 8 — an historic event in its own regard.)

However, this is an attempt to argue for Julio Teheran.

As of Friday morning, there is only one pitcher on the active roster who the Braves have committed to long term, as Teheran agreed to a six-year deal with an option that could keep him around through the 2020 campaign. As one of the top rookies in baseball last season, Teheran looked like a No. 1 starter in stretches, going 14-8 with a 3.69 FIP after overcoming a rough start to the season. If the Braves want to back up that commitment — and who knows, Minor’s extension could be coming down the pipe any day now — then send Teheran out there for either opener.

The rotation is young enough to claim "the future is now." Just go ahead and own it by sending out arguably the most talented pitcher you’ve got.

MCCARTNEY: Fredi Gonzalez gave the start to Tim Hudson last season, opting to lean on his veteran. But there isn’t an old-hand in the rotation this year, with Minor’s 85 starts leading the way, with Medlen second (61) on a staff with an average age of 25.4.

Medlen got back on track after an erratic first two months, posting a 14-7 record with a 2.92 ERA in 20 starts from June 3 on. However, Minor and Teheran both had more strikeouts per nine innings (8.0 and 8.2, respectively) than Medlen’s 7.2 and lower WHIPs (1.090 and 1.174 to Medlen’s 1.223).

But Gonzalez is a creature of habit, and given that Medlen got the ball in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, it’s likely he’ll be the choice when the Braves open on March 31 in Milwaukee.

CLEMONS: Life’s too short to worry about such trivialities.

Given the tender ages of Minor (26), Medlen (28) and Teheran (23), Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez won’t have to play politics here, when deciding the starters for Opening Day (March 31 @ Milwaukee) or the home opener on April 8 (vs. the Mets).

If you want a year-round rotation that goes righty-lefty-righty for the Big Three … then Medlen likely deserves the ball on March 31.

If you want to reward the most consistent arm from last year — including the playoffs — then Minor gets the call.

And if you want a high-upside pitcher with the capacity for 10 straight Opening Day starts … then Teheran’s the man.

MCCARTNEY: The Braves were well-positioned to have breakout stars last season, dealing with injuries to Brian McCann and Beachy, a new era at third base after Chipper Jones’ retirement and the struggles of Uggla and Upton.

With the everyday lineup seemingly set, we’ll look to the reserves for a surprise — especially if big names continue to have problems this season — and versatility will be the key to Ramiro Pena’s rise.

Once considered by the Yankees as the heir apparent to Derek Jeter, he signed as a free agent in December 2012 and proceeded to so some surprising pop at the plate (.278/.330/.443 with a career-high nine extra-base hits in 107 plate appearances before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in July.

An ability to spell Uggla at second, Simmons at shortstop, Johnson at third as well as play the outfield in a pinch — something he did for the Yankees in 2010 — as a plus-defender could see him thrive.

CLEMONS: Reliever David Carpenter enjoyed a phenomenal 2013 season, amassing four wins, a 1.78 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 74/20 K-BB rate. But he was somewhat overshadowed by the absurd production of closer Craig Kimbrel (1.21 ERA, 50 saves), along with the fluid storyline of "injuries" to the Atlanta bullpen.

Another supreme season would likely change that narrative. Carpenter seemingly has all the tools to be a major league closer someday, possessing a power arm, a devastating fastball and the potential to carry a bullpen for long stretches.

In 2013, he posted multiple outings of 10 straight appearances without allowing a single earned run.

DILLARD: There is plenty of unknown for Alex Wood in his sophomore season — Will there be an innings limit? Will he start in the rotation? Is he going to spend the better part of the year in the bullpen? — but there’s little questioning his ability. In 31 appearances last season, the lefty with the odd delivery bounced back and forth between starting and relieving roles, but his numbers stood out: posting a 1.6 WAR in just 77 2/3 MLB innings pitched, nearly nine strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.65 fielding-independent pitching.

Taking into consideration that a major chunk of his production came when he was finally handed consistent work and was able to develop a routine, it stands to reason that Wood, who has added some weight to his wiry frame this offseason, should be even better this time around.

However, the club’s utilization of him is a key component in the equation.

Wood has undergone Tommy John surgery once already, so an innings limit seems likely for a guy who pitched 130 total innings in his first professional season. He’s on record saying he wants to be a starter — as he should — but the team’s plans for the rest of the roster come into play. If Wood starts out the season in the rotation, an innings limit would eventually forced him into the bullpen or to be shut down at the very end of the season, as free agent pickup Gavin Floyd gets healthy. But if Wood starts off in the bullpen and transitions back to starting later on, the Braves could look to veteran Freddy Garcia or David Hale out of the gate … and where would that leave Floyd in the mix?

Wood proved from Day One in spring training last year that he’s ready to perform at the major league level. For a young team that lost veterans Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, expect Wood to play a bigger role this time around.