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Contagious slump a decisive blow to '14 Braves

Rotation's early-season flourish can't make up for poor production at plate

ATLANTA -- Coming off a 96-win campaign that netted them their first division title in eight years, the Braves approached the 2014 season with genuine optimism. But by the time Opening Day arrived, there were already signs that this could be a year marred by disappointment.

When Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy sustained season-ending right elbow injuries approximately 24 hours apart in March, the Braves dealt with the first two of many setbacks they would encounter during perhaps the organization's most frustrating season in more than two decades.

Concerns about a rotation that did not include Medlen and Beachy actually dissipated as Aaron Harang enjoyed a magical year and Julio Teheran moved closer to becoming a legitimate ace. But an offense that had scored the National League's fourth-most runs in 2013 ended up tallying the third fewest during a non-strike-shortened season in Atlanta history.

Video: [email protected]: Harang dodges seeds while reflecting on year

Still, the Braves exited August just 1 1/2 games back in the chase for the National League's second Wild Card spot. But by the time a dismal September was over, the club had endured its third losing season since 1990, setting the stage for general manager Frank Wren's dismissal.

Wren's departure opened the door for John Hart to become the president of baseball operations. Hart and assistant GM John Coppolella overhauled the scouting and player-development staffs before embarking on a roster reconstruction project that is tied to the club's desire to be a consistent postseason participant when SunTrust Park opens in 2017.

Video: Braves name Hart president of baseball operations

In trading Jason Heyward to the Cardinals in November -- then spending a few weeks evaluating the possibility of dealing Justin Upton and Evan Gattis -- the Braves were looking toward the future and attempting to distance themselves from the disappointment they felt most of this past season.

Though the memories might be painful, let's look back on five significant storylines of 2014:

5. Gold Gloves and a golden arm
As the Braves search for the positives that developed this year, they can remember Craig Kimbrel set the franchise saves record in just his fourth full season and led the NL in saves a the fourth straight year. They'll also remember the glovework provided by Andrelton Simmons and Heyward, who both garnered multiple defensive honors after the season. Simmons set a record with the 41 Defensive Runs Saved he was credited with in 2013; this year, he ranked second to Heyward's MLB-leading total (32).

Video: Braves win two Gold Gloves in 2014

4. A flurry of extensions
All seemed right in the Braves' world when in January they gave first baseman Freddie Freeman a franchise-record $135 million extension that runs through 2021. Over the weeks that followed, Simmons, Teheran and Kimbrel received contract extensions that bought out their arbitration-eligible seasons and secured their costs beyond when they would have first become eligible to test the free-agent market.

2014 Year in Review and 2015 outlook

But all of the upbeat preseason thoughts about the club's future were blemished after the season, as the Braves began to address their weak farm system and the sudden need to replenish a starting pitching crop lacking Medlen and Beachy. To address these needs, the Braves traded Heyward and looked at other deals that might strengthen the club beyond 2015.

3. Uggla and B.J.
When the Braves released second baseman Dan Uggla in July, they were not able to bid adieu to his contract, which might have stood as the worst in franchise history had B.J. Upton not been signed to a five-year, $75.25 million contract just two winters ago. Uggla and Upton cost the Braves $26.45 million this year and combined to produce -0.1 fWAR.

The Braves are hoping new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer can work a miracle with Upton this year. But at the same time, they know it would not be wise to be too optimistic about a guy who has posted the Majors' sixth-worst OPS (.593) over the past two seasons. Regardless, they can't overlook the fact that their offseason options are limited by the fact that Uggla and Upton will account for a little more than a quarter of their payroll next year.

2. The surprisingly steady rotation
Doom and gloom filled the air when it was learned Medlen and Beachy would both have to undergo a second Tommy John surgery. But their absence did not destroy a rotation that benefited from the March additions of Harang, who greatly exceeded expectations, and Ervin Santana, who was serviceable, even if he did not fully live up to his $14.1 million salary. Atlanta's hot start was fueled by a reconstructed rotation that posted an incredible 1.57 ERA through the season's first 24 games.

Video: [email protected]: Santana records his 1500th career strikeout

While that pace was obviously unsustainable, Atlanta's rotation still ended up posting the NL's fourth-best mark (3.42), proving that it was not the club's weak link.

1. An anemic offense
The weakest link was undoubtedly an offense that tallied fewer runs than every Major League club but the Padres. Chris Johnson's bid to win a batting title in 2013 was forgotten, as he was one of four Braves with at least 300 plate appearances and a sub-.700 OPS. Simmons, one of the members of this quartet, provided reason to wonder if his 17 homers in 2013 negatively affected his approach in '14. Freeman and Justin Upton were the club's steadiest offensive performers. But after posting MVP-caliber numbers through the season's first five months, Upton produced a worse OPS (.559) than his older brother (.734) during September.

Greg Walker remains one of the most respected and knowledgable figures in the baseball world. But after serving as the hitting coach for this group, it was hard to question his decision to walk away from the game at the end of this frustration-filled season.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for
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