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MLB: Uggla, B.J. Upton two of Braves’ big spring-training story lines
First Published Feb 12 2014 09:12 am • Last Updated Feb 25 2014 04:41 pm

Atlanta • In signing Freddie Freeman to the largest contract in Braves history last week, general manager Frank Wren effectively threw a bone of optimism to the fan base, many of whom waited for one all winter. It was also a palate cleanser of sorts after an otherwise encouraging 2013 season ended on a down note in a division series defeat against the Dodgers.

Freeman’s $135 million contract, coupled with Wren’s stated plan to keep the Braves’ young core together, came at an opportune time — just before the annual rite or renewal that is spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report Thursday to camp at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and the first full-squad workout is Feb. 19.

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There will be plenty of story lines to follow this spring, and more issues that folks seem concerned about than might be expected for a young team with so many returners from a 96-win unit that captured its first division title since 2005.

But that’s what can happen when your team loses some leaders — Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Eric O’Flaherty — to free agency and it doesn’t make major additions comparable to those made by the main division rival, the Nationals.

Also, things seem magnified because a lasting Braves image of 2013 was Juan Uribe’s eighth-inning, two-run homer into the Los Angeles night off David Carpenter in Game 4 of the division series. A shot that lifted the Dodgers past the Braves while closer Craig Kimbrel stood in the bullpen, warmed and upset that he hadn’t been brought in to squelch the rally.

So, the Braves head back to their spring home at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports cloaked in the usual anticipation and high hopes of Braves Country, but also with many followers concerned about one or more matters that must be resolved, preferably before things get real March 31 in the regular-season opener at Milwaukee.

They Braves will play nearly 200 games -- 34 at spring training, 162 during the season — before they could get a chance to put their playoff loss to the Dodgers behind them and end an alarming streak of eight consecutive postseason series losses. But for now, the focus is not on making the playoffs, but on getting things going in the right direction in Central Florida.

What follows are some key situations we’ll watch to see how they begin to shake out amid the sun and palm trees. There are other questions, such as whether Jason Heyward will bat leadoff (which appears most likely). But these are the biggest.

Uggla and Upton: It’s not exaggerating to suggest that Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton were among the handful of worst hitters in all of baseball last season. Especially troubling considering they were the Braves’ two highest-paid players, both with multiple years remaining on their contracts, meaning it was going to take more than a garden-variety extended slump to bench them.

They had slumps of epic proportion, coupled with health issues — a midseason groin injury for Upton, late-season laser eye surgery for Uggla — and both eventually were benched for varying periods. Uggla was left off the postseason roster, an awkward situation for him and manager Fredi Gonzalez, a relationship that dates to their years together with the Marlins.

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Upton, in the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract, batted .184 with a .268 on-base percentage in 391 at-bats, with nine homers, 26 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 126 games. Uggla, in the third season of a five-year, $62 million deal, hit .179 in 448 at-bats, with 10 doubles and 22 homers in 136 games. The two piled up 322 strikeouts in 839 at-bats.

So, now what? The Braves tried to trade Uggla over the winter, but quickly realized there were no takers interested in paying any significant part of the $26 million he’s owed over the next two seasons.

The best the Braves could hope for this spring: Another team, preferably with deep pockets, has an injury and Uggla gets off to a good start to convince said team he can still be a power-hitting presence. The Braves would probably pay a big portion of his remaining salary to make a deal happen, but how much is unclear.

The second-best scenario: Uggla plays well this spring and carries it over to the regular season. He doesn’t have to be the .265 hitter with 30 homers and 85-90 RBIs — the hitter they thought he would be when they traded for him -- but if he can stop the three-year erosion and hit at least .230-.240 with a decent OBP and 25 homers, it would be a major improvement.

Uggla got married this winter and worked out regularly with a few teammates, including Freeman. They say he’s upbeat. Gonzalez talked with him early in the offseason and said they got things smoothed over.

More important to the Braves, given his long-term contract, is the status of B.J. Upton. He worked out at home in Tampa, Fla., with the goal of simplifying his swing to get it back where it was until four or five years ago with the Rays. Hitting coach Greg Walker paid a visit and came away impressed with the work Upton did to clean up his swing.

"I think both of them are going to be fine mentally," Walker said. "We just need to see where there swings are (against live pitching). Until we get to spring training, we won’t really know much."

Beachy’s elbow: He had two elbow surgeries in 15 months, and if the one Brandon Beachy had in September — a less-invasive arthroscopic procedure to clean out debris — was as effective as it seems thus far, the Braves could be welcoming back a top-half-of-the-rotation type of starter to a unit that already has three.

Before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament and having Tommy John surgery in June 2012, Beachy had a 2.00 ERA and majors-leading .171 opponents’ average in 13 starts that season. In his last 35 starts before the injury, he had 2.89 ERA, .208 opponents’ average and 220 strikeouts in 205 1/3 innings. Yes, in case you forgot, he was that good.

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