Top five pitfalls Atlanta Braves should avoid in 2014

Atlanta Braves
Will new swings from Dan Uggla (left) and B.J. Upton (right) elevate the Atlanta Braves in 2014? (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Spring training is off and running and there are lots of positives to take away, even if the Atlanta Braves’ record is nothing to be excited about. But c’mon! To quote Allan Iverson: “… But we’re talking about practice, man. How silly is that?” Not to downplay anything, but this is practice. Pitchers are trotting out new pitches, hitters are working on mechanics and no one wants to get injured before the season actually starts.

Don’t sweat the record.

Instead, be happy about Freddy Garcia, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran making good pitches and stretching into form. Enjoy the new swings of Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. Be excited about Tommy La Stella and his hot bat. Besides, we’ve got more pressing issues to talk about.

Last season was nothing to scoff at: 96 wins, finishing 10 games over the second-place Washington Nationals and a playoff appearance. Sure, it could have gone better in October, but you can’t win them all every time. However, it does bring to light some details to mull over and some places the Braves could improve to up their chances at another run this year. So I’ve put together a list of pitfalls the Braves would do well to avoid this year. Maybe this team could find a much longer trip through the postseason as a result.

5. Inconsistency at the plate

When the Braves hitters were on last season, they were hotter than Atlanta blacktop in August. When they were not, they were Snowjam 2014. Surely you’ve heard about that, even if you’re not an Atlanta native. Obviously, the struggles of Uggla and B.J. had something to do with that, but even the hot bats of Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson couldn’t carry the offense for the whole season. Plus, Fredi Gonzalez jimmied the lineup so many times there was no rhythm until around June. Of course, that led to Jason Heyward flourishing in the leadoff spot, so it’s not all bad.

But Justin Upton’s scorching April fizzled into a so-so rest of the season, Heyward had the weirdest DL year I’ve ever heard of and the lousy average of Uggla and B.J. made for some serious lulls.

This season, the Braves need to have a few consistent hitters who are at least hitting for average at a given time. Certainly if Heyward can stay on the field, that’s going to go a long way to keeping the lineup productive. Evan Gattis’ sophomore year should be exciting once again, assuming he’s been working out the flaws in his approach at the plate to throw opposing pitchers off again. For Gattis, that means no more chasing way outside or up in his eyes. Except for when he connects and and savages some high heat into orbit.

In the meantime, I’ve heard good things about the new swings of Uggla and B.J., but until I see some actual game action, I’m not holding my breath. Needless to say, the two of them getting back into form will go a long way.

4. Squander their speed

The Atlanta Braves don’t have speedy legs all the way up and down their lineup, but they certainly aren’t incapable. But their 64 total stolen bases last season were good for 12th out of 15 in the National League. Of course, guys like B.J. have to actually be on base in order to steal one, so that certainly had something to do with it. But there’s no reason that he, along with Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, and Jordan Schafer can’t rack up a decent total this year. Even the threat is enough to change the way opposing teams approach this lineup, but the Braves will actually have to do it to even threaten.

3. Strikeouts, K’s, and whiffs

I know there are a number of you out there yelling “See? See?! I told you! No team with that many strikeouts can win the World Series!” Yeah, yeah. I guess you win this one, because I can’t say you’re wrong. But the strikeouts were a symptom, not the problem. In any case, the point is that this lineup needs to focus on productive outs and cut down on the strikeouts simply because that’s better baseball. The stats concerning number of strikeouts and World Series appearances don’t concern me. What does concern me is baserunners, production and RBI.

Fewer K’s means hitters are putting the ball into play, which just means more chances for good things to happen.

2. Wait for an ace

Remember when Clayton Kershaw was starting two playoff games for the L.A. Dodgers and everyone was talking about how the Braves didn’t have an answer? Then, when the offseason started, Frank Wren came out and said number one on his wishlist was a proven ace for the pitching staff?

Well, that never came to fruition.

The list of available aces wasn’t exactly long this year, not to mention the ones who were out there weren’t hanging out in a bargain bin. Instead, Wren put his money on future stars already in Atlanta, and I still think it’s the right choice.

I think there’s more than enough talent on this pitching staff. I wouldn’t call any one of them an ace yet, but I certainly won’t say one of them can’t be. Still, the Braves can’t sit and wait for an ace to come their way. Every pitcher on this staff has had flashes of brilliance, as their lowest team ERA in all of baseball proves. This year, it’s time for an ace to emerge instead of hoping one comes their way at the trade deadline.

Drumroll, please.

1. Act like they don’t belong

All of these things have something of a pattern. Last year was a strange one for the Atlanta Braves. They were doubted from the very beginning as preseason underdogs to the Nationals, whom they went on to dominate for the entire season. Sure, that’s just baseball, and odds are a gamble every time. That’s what makes it fun, right?

But the Braves were considered underdogs at any given point. There were pundits who still thought the Nats had a chance with around a week to play. Even hometown hero Chipper Jones thought the Dodgers were the favorite for the first round of the playoffs. I don’t know if the Braves exuded a lack of confidence or if the doubters got in their heads, but no matter what, there was an overwhelming sense they were playing over their heads.

It could be chalked up to their youth, especially having lost Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, which directly correlates to lack of postseason experience. It could be how many times the Braves have been to the playoffs in the last two decades with only one ring to show for it. Whatever the reason, it needs to stop here.

It’s a new year. The organization is locking down its young, talented players. Most of them have seen at least one round of playoffs, and yes, I still count the one game in 2012. There is a lot of talent on this team, and the NL East is theirs to lose, if you ask me. They may not have established studs like Miguel Cabrera or Kershaw, but they have a full roster of talent that can compete at a high level.

If the Braves avoid these pitfalls this year, they stand a good chance of finding themselves deep in October baseball.

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