Which player is bound to have a bounce-back year, Dan Uggla or B.J. Upton?
-- Patrick S., Williamson, Ga.
Despite hitting .179 and becoming the fourth Major Leaguer to strike out at least 170 times in 540 or fewer plate appearances, Uggla's miserable 2013 season was actually much more productive than Upton's. He hit 13 more home runs and produced an OPS (.671) that was more than 100 points higher than Upton's. With that in mind, it could be said Uggla has less ground to cover to produce what would be deemed a productive bounce-back season.
Regardless of which guess you make when attempting to answer this question, it's safe to say it would be hard for either of these players to be any worse than they were while residing below the Mendoza Line throughout this past season.
While they are hoping to benefit from the improved production both should provide in 2014, the Braves should not place any unreasonable expectations on Uggla or Upton. If both players can hit somewhere between .230-.240 and record at least 20 home runs, their production will at least be back in the vicinity it was before the Braves gave them their lucrative contracts.
Uggla had only himself to blame for not pushing the issue and finding an immediate solution when he learned his vision was blurred during Spring Training in 2013. But once he gained "new eyes" after undergoing LASIK surgery in August, the Braves showed some impatience by giving him just 41 plate appearances before he was benched in favor of Elliot Johnson. Then a few weeks later, his psyche was further shaken when he was left off the National League Division Series roster.
A few months from now, you'll read a manager or general manager comment on a player's Spring Training struggles by saying something like, "It's a small sample size, give them some time." Well, it just didn't seem Uggla was given enough time while trying to get used to his new vision. And given the fact he got on base with a hit or a walk in 13 of those 41 plate appearances, it was not like he was a total disaster.
Likewise, Upton was given little room for error when he returned from the disabled list after missing a little more than two weeks immediately after the All-Star break. He hit .476 in his first five games back and then found his confidence shaken when he was once again sharing time in center field with Jordan Schafer a week later. His diminished playing time seemed to be a response to the questionable effort he made while pursuing Adeiny Hechavarria's drive to the left-center-field gap during a 1-0 Aug. 10 loss to the Marlins that snapped Atlanta's 14-game winning streak.
But as he acknowledged multiple times, Upton did not have any room to complain during a season in which he hit .184 with a .557 OPS -- the lowest figure recorded by a Braves player with at least 400 plate appearances since 1974.
When the Braves gave Upton a five-year, $75.25 million contract last year, they took a gamble on a player who had hit .242 with a .736 OPS over the previous four seasons combined.
One year later, they would gladly take a .242 batting average and .736 OPS from either Uggla or Upton.
I haven't heard a lot about Paul Maholm this offseason. With the lack of free-agent pitching depth, he seems like a steal. Is there a problem with him?
-- TJ R., Fort Collins, Colo.
Maholm remains a free agent who will almost certainly be a part of a big league rotation before the 2014 season begins. Many of you have questioned why the Braves opted to take a chance on Gavin Floyd's health, rather than re-sign Maholm. This was simply a product of the fact they did not want to make more than a one-year commitment and Maholm is seemingly destined to get a multiyear deal.
How do you envision the Braves' starting lineup looking in 2014?
-- Neal S., Covington, Ga.
My projected Opening Day lineup:
Jason Heyward RF
Justin Upton LF
Freddie Freeman 1B
Evan Gattis C
Chris Johnson 3B
B.J. Upton CF
Andrelton Simmons SS
The one thing that immediately stands out is the fact that the Braves are right-handed heavy just one year after general manager Frank Wren entered the Hot Stove season attempting to add a greater right-handed presence to his lineup.
Some of you are likely wondering why I would put Uggla and B.J. Upton above Simmons. Actually, some of you might be wondering why I included them at all. Regardless, if you spend the next couple of months telling these two players you are confident in their abilities, it would not seem to be wise to enter the season with one of them batting in the eighth spot.
As Yogi Berra said, "Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical."
Have the Braves thought about acquiring a pure leadoff-type player (speed and high OBP), or will they stick with what they have?
-- Gary U., Panama City, Fla.
I think it's safe to say they found the right guy when they moved Heyward into that role last year. His move to the top of the lineup was the key catalyst during the club's 14-game winning streak. Injuries limited his stolen-base opportunities last year. But he swiped 21 bags the year before and owns a .352 career on-base percentage. Those credentials will suffice.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.