3 key questions face Braves as camp arrives

Olivera, pitching staff will draw attention in Spring Training

February 18th, 2016

ATLANTA -- Though there is certainly reason to be skeptical about what 2016 may bring, there is great anticipation as the Braves prepare to open Spring Training and embark on a journey that will bring them one step closer to what could be a very bright future.

There are concerns about a young rotation that will likely experience a lot of change throughout the season, and there is reason to wonder if a healthy Freddie Freeman will be enough for the team to overcome some of its offensive inadequacies.

As the Braves distance themselves from the often turbulent 2015 season, they find themselves renewed by the optimistic energy this time of year creates throughout the baseball world.

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"This is my tenth Spring Training with the Braves, and it's the best collection of young talent we've ever had in camp," Braves general manager John Coppolella said. "I'm as excited for our future as I've ever been since I have worked for the Braves."

When the Braves officially welcome their pitchers and catchers to Spring Training on Friday, there will not be any reason to dwell on the disappointment of their 67-95 record in 2015. Instead there will be an air of excitement as many talented prospects indoctrinate themselves with the veterans, who will be motivated by the chance to prove the doubters wrong. 

Though maybe not realistic to predict this year's Braves will make a playoff run, optimism reigns supreme in Spring Training.

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If the Braves are going to at least move closer toward achieving a winning record again this year, they'll need some of their young pitchers to take a step in the right direction, and some of their veteran position players will have to rebound from the struggles experienced in 2015.

Here are three key questions surrounding the Braves as they enter Spring Training:

1. Will we see an improved Hector Olivera?

When Olivera slashed .253/.310/.405 in the first 24 games of his big league career last September, there was reason to wonder if the Braves were wise to acquire him from the Dodgers at the expense of Jose Peraza and Alex Wood. The 30-year-old Cuban's struggles might have been influenced by the lack of comfort he felt while playing for two different organizations in his first year in the United States. He then extended concerns as he produced meager success in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

After spending some time with Olivera in Puerto Rico, Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said he believes the athletic Cuban left fielder can hit somewhere in the neighborhood of a .280 batting average with 15-20 home runs. If Olivera does this, he'll add some much-needed right-handed pop to the lineup and possibly create some fluidity if he can fill the cleanup spot in an order that will be left-handed heavy at the top.

2. Can Jason Grilli recover and capably fill the closer role again?

There has never been reason to question Grilli's determination and fighting spirit, having overcome numerous obstacles and significant injuries during his career. Now, at 39, he is tasked with proving he can still be a top-notch reliever after suffering a ruptured left Achilles tendon last July. If Grilli returns to form, he'll likely resume his closing role and further strengthen a much deeper bullpen mix that includes two other right-handers with successful track records as closers -- Arodys Vizcaino and Jim Johnson.

It will be intriguing to see how the hard-throwing Chris Withrow fares as he competes for work in the seventh and eighth innings. Veterans like David Carpenter, Alexi Ogando and Alex Torres will also have opportunities to strengthen the relief corps depth after coming to camp as non-roster invitees.

With the quantity of pitchers in camp, the Braves have positioned themselves to significantly improve the quality of their bullpen. The added depth will help them overcome injuries and regression over what is a long baseball season. There's no doubt, though, that the Braves' bullpen will be at its best if they can once again rely on a healthy and effective Grilli.

3. Will Julio Teheran and Bud Norris provide some stability to the rotation?

There's a chance that Teheran and Norris will be the only members of the Opening Day rotation who have made at least 20 career starts. Teheran eased some concerns with his performance down the stretch in 2015, lowering his ERA from 4.71 to 4.04 over his final 12 starts. Meanwhile, Norris struggled to the point that he made just 11 starts over 18 appearances before being released by the Orioles last year.

Pitching coach Roger McDowell could prove to be a positive influence on Norris, who was effective enough to make two playoff starts for the Orioles in 2014. But there's still reason to be concerned about the inexperience that could exist throughout the remainder of the rotation. Matt Wisler and Williams Perez will be among those starters given a chance to build upon last year's experiences. At some point, the Braves will also likely give some of their top pitching prospects like Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair and Tyrell Jenkins a chance to start at the big league level this season.

Growing pains are often inevitable for young pitchers at the big league level. But if Teheran and Norris can both bounce back this year, they could negate some of that potential inconsistency at the back end of the rotation.