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Braves determined to step forward in 2016

Club aims to reconstruct bullpen, add bat in hopes of returning to contention

ATLANTA -- Though many of the decisions the Braves have made over the past year have been aimed toward becoming a legitimate playoff threat in 2017, the troubles they experienced during the second half of this past season have made them determined to not experience a repeat in '16.

This does not mean the Braves will aggressively pursue Zack Greinke -- who is expected to opt out of his deal with the Dodgers -- David Price or any of the other top-tier starting pitchers on the free-agent market. But with approximately $30 million available to spend, they will look to do whatever they can to reconstruct their bullpen, add another bat to their lineup and possibly enhance their rotation with a touch of experience.

As the Braves look toward next season, they are hopeful to benefit from a healthy Freddie Freeman and a more experienced Hector Olivera. These two corner infielders have the capability to provide a strong presence in the middle of a lineup that could also be fortified with a stronger version of Nick Markakis, who will not have to spend a portion of this offseason remaining sedentary after undergoing neck surgery.

There are certainly some lineup-related questions, as the Braves have to determine who will serve as their starting catcher and whether Jace Peterson should indeed be viewed as the long-term answer at second base. If Cameron Maybin had sustained his first-half success, there wouldn't be much need to even ponder who will navigate center field next year.

The Braves will have to determine which of their current rookies will rejoin Julio Teheran and Shelby Miller in the starting rotation. But most of their pitching focus will be placed on the bullpen, which will likely look vastly different than it did during this past season's final two months.

As the Braves navigate their way through the offseason, they will keep an eye on 2017. But they certainly will not lose focus on '16, a year in which they hope to transition back toward the top of the National League East standings.

Arbitration-eligible: SP Mike Minor, SP Miller

Free agents: C A.J. Pierzynski, RP Edwin Jackson, RP Ross Detwiler, RP Peter Moylan

Rotation: Matt Wisler showed enough down the stretch to provide reason to believe he will be back in the rotation with Miller and Teheran next year. The candidates for the final two spots could include Minor, Williams Perez, Manny Banuelos, Mike Foltynewicz and Tyrell Jenkins. Minor is an interesting case, as the Braves have to decide whether they are willing to pay him approximately $5 million as he returns from shoulder surgery. If he's healthy, this could prove to be a sound investment. Perez showed flashes of promise this year, but Banuelos has greater upside if his bothersome left elbow cooperates. It will also be interesting what route is taken with Foltynewicz, who could certainly be a nice bullpen piece if it's determined he's not fit to be a starter. The Braves will also have to decide whether it would be beneficial to add an experienced middle-of the-rotation arm to this young group.

Bullpen: Arodys Vizcaino will fill a late-inning role and Daniel Winkler will attempt to prove why he was selected in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft. Other than that, the Braves do not know exactly who will fill their bullpen next year. Among the relievers who finished the season in Atlanta's bullpen, Moylan might be the only other returnee on the '16 Opening Day roster. The Braves have made it known they will search the free-agent and trade markets in search of bullpen help. Their focus will be influenced by the health of Jason Grilli, Chris Withrow and Shae Simmons. While Withrow and Simmons are attempting to return from Tommy John surgery, Grilli faces the challenge of returning from a torn Achilles at 39 years old.

Catcher: Christian Bethancourt lost his starting role less than two weeks into this past season, and as the past few weeks unfolded, it was apparent the Braves are still not confident he can handle the catcher's position on an everyday basis. Pierzynski provided a solution this year as he started more than 100 games behind the plate. While the Braves would like to have the 39-year-old Pierzynski return as a backup, they will at least look at other starting options via trades or free agency. At the same time, they could attempt to move Bethancourt with the realization that his value has significantly dropped.

First base: Freeman spent eight weeks on the disabled list because of a strained right wrist and an oblique strain. Though the wrist continued to bother him throughout September, the Braves are hopeful he will be back at full strength after being given a chance to rest throughout the offseason. Nick Swisher will also likely return to provide a backup option.

Second base: The Braves traded top prospect Jose Peraza to the Dodgers partly because they had come to view Peterson as their long-term solution at second base. Peterson possesses a great attitude and a strong glove. But the sub .300 on-base percentage he produced over the final three months of his first full season allowed Daniel Castro to log some time at second base during the latter part of the season. While Peterson still seems to be lineup up for the starting job next year, Castro has at least provided an intriguing option.

Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons encouraged hitting coach Kevin Seitzer with some signs of improved plate discipline. The Gold Glove shortstop remains a work in progress on the offensive end, but his stellar defensive contributions still make him one of Atlanta's most valuable assets. Castro has also proven that he can be a capable backup on those days when Simmons needs to rest.

Third base: Olivera will continue to be scrutinized until he proves why the Braves were willing to acquire him from the Dodgers in exchange for Peraza and Alex Wood, a controllable and proven starting pitcher. The Braves preached the need to be patient after Olivera made his Major League debut on Sept. 1 and then provided some inconsistent results with both the bat and glove. But Atlanta fans will not provide this same level of patience if Olivera struggles after getting a chance to go through a normal Spring Training next year.

Outfield: While the Braves know Markakis will return to right field next year, there is still some uncertainty surrounding the other two outfield spots. Maybin's second-half struggles at least cast some doubt on whether he should be penciled in as the starting center fielder again next year. Swisher and Michael Bourn are candidates to play left field, but both have provided reason to doubt whether they should be considered everyday players at this point in their respective careers. Adonis Garcia's impressive rookie season has positioned him to enter the 2016 season as a backup option in left field and at third base.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for
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