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Braves prepare for beginning of spring schedule

Veteran Garcia starts first game as many players get set to prove themselves

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Braves third baseman Chris Johnson is nervous.

Fresh off a second-place finish in the National League batting title race and more than four years removed from his Major League debut, Johnson is preparing for a "nerve-wracking" day when the Braves host the Tigers for their first game of Spring Training on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. ET at Champion Stadium.

But those are not bad nerves. Johnson is excited. "It's going to be a fun day," Johnson said.

Fewer than two weeks have passed since Braves pitchers and catchers officially reported to Spring Training at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort, but Johnson already wants to move on from team workouts. He wants to break routine and face outside competition.

"The guys are ready," Johnson said. "We're ready to get out there and face a different opponent, see some other guys on the other side of the field.

"That's kind of how we are as athletes. We want to see another team over there. We want to try to beat that team. We haven't had that for so long. I think that's probably the most exciting thing about [Wednesday]."

Johnson began Spring Training last year facing uncertainty.

He was joining a new team as part of the acquisition that brought Justin Upton to Atlanta. Johnson also faced the challenge of not only competing for playing time in a position battle with Juan Francisco, but replacing future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones at third base.

Johnson's role is more assured this season after a stellar performance in 2013, but there is plenty of uncertainty left in the Braves' clubhouse.

After 13 days of batting practice, running the bases, playing catch and fielding grounders, the games will begin to give Atlanta answers as it prepares for 2014.

"We're not here for workouts," catcher Gerald Laird said. "We all know what we're doing out there."

This year's Spring Training slate will offer outfielder B.J. Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla shots to achieve redemption. Both players endured career-worst seasons and were benched during various stretches of the year.

Upton struggled to do much of anything at the plate in the first season of his five-year, $75 million contract -- the richest free-agent deal in franchise history. He made three postseason plate appearances, striking out in all three.

Uggla did not even make it to the postseason. He was left off the NL Division Series roster following a regular season that saw him post career-worst hitting numbers in the face of complications with his vision.

A prospect like Tommy La Stella could stand to benefit if Uggla continues to struggle.

Meanwhile, catcher Evan Gattis takes on a task similar to Johnson's of a year ago -- replacing a star.

After a rookie season that made him a household name, Gattis replaces departed All-Star backstop Brian McCann -- who signed a five-year deal with the Yankees in December -- as Atlanta's everyday catcher.

In his new daily job behind the plate, Gattis will aim to bring his trademark power to the lineup as well as manage a young, talented pitching staff.

News of a late December surgery that will likely sideline left-handed starter Mike Minor until the regular season increases the opportunity for those aiming to earn a spot in the starting rotation.

Veteran Freddy Garcia takes the hill Wednesday in an effort to prove that he has more starts to offer like his clutch Game 4 performance in last season's NLDS.

The 37-year-old could replace the veteran presence lost when Tim Hudson left to sign a two-year deal with the Giants. Or perhaps Kris Medlen, who has served as Atlanta's Game 1 starter in two straight playoff appearances, will assume the role of staff ace.

Medlen will take the mound Thursday against the Tigers at 1:05 p.m. in Lakeland, Fla.

The schedule also provides an opportunity for young arms and recovering arms to impress. In 27-year-old Brandon Beachy's case, young and recovering.

Beachy and Gavin Floyd, 31, are both in the midst of returns from Tommy John surgery. Beachy's comeback attempt last August was cut short, and he is motivated to return to the level he enjoyed as the NL's ERA leader in early 2012.

Lefty Alex Wood is also in play for a rotation spot following a solid 2013 season during which he impressed in the rotation, out of the bullpen and in the Minor Leagues.

The later innings offer more stability as the bulk of last season's elite group -- including All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel -- return.

But with southpaw Jonny Venters still finding his way back to the mound following Tommy John surgery, the Braves need a lefty reliever to complement Luis Avilan.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez mentioned both Ryan Buchter and non-roster invitee Atahualpa Severino, each hoping to catch on in the Majors, as options to potentially become the Braves' next under-the-radar bullpen find.

Plenty of uncertainty faces Atlanta as it begins the Spring Training schedule, but Wednesday's contest also marks the first day of a new era.

First baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, starter Julio Teheran, outfielder Jason Heyward and Kimbrel all signed offseason contract extensions. The young core's future begins the moment Garcia fires Wednesday's first pitch. Wednesday's opener marks the first time the Braves will take the field since losing to the Dodgers in Game 4 of last season's NLDS. Although the next month of play is made up of Grapefruit League games, Atlanta wants to make the most of it.

Some position battles will be decided while others, as Johnson knows, could carry into the regular season. On Wednesday, the process begins.

"We're ready for the first game," Gonzalez said. "Really."

Joe Morgan is a contributor to

Atlanta Braves