Originally written on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 11/19/14
Despite another great year that was highlighted by an NL East title, the Atlanta Braves are sitting at home, watching the Cardinals and the Dodgers duke it out for the right to go to the Fall Classic. This season was certainly not a failure for Fredi Gonzalez’s gang, but it certainly did not end the way the team and the fans had wanted it to with yet another early exit in October. At this point, all the team can do is gear up and prepare for 2014, a season that appears to be one full of a great deal of promise along with a great deal of change. While it is still very early, here’s a quick look at what Braves Country may be exposed to next season: The Times, They Are a-Changin’ The 2013 season sure had its share of highs and lows, but with that being said there may be several key Braves that do not return. One of the more notable players is starting pitcher Tim Hudson, the veteran hurler who has played with the Braves for the last nine seasons and held an 8-7 record with a 3.97 ERA when he broke his ankle midway through this year. Hudson, who turned thirty-eight years old in July, will be a free agent once this MLB season officially ends, leaving many, including myself, to believe Atlanta will not risk giving him another contract considering his age and recent injury issues. As important as Hudson has been for the Braves over the last few years, it can be argued that no player has been as big of a fan favorite than Duluth High School’s Brian McCann, who has played with Atlanta since 2005 and has promptly hit 176 home runs with seven All-Star appearances during that time. McCann has definitely been reliable for the Braves over the long run, but the twenty-nine year old was upstaged a bit with the appearance of rookie Evan Gattis, who posted a .243 batting average with 21 home runs and 65 RBIs this season. Atlanta has a big decision to make in whether to keep McCann or instead start Gattis behind the plate (Gattis will not be permanently moved to left field), escalated by the fact that B-Mac’s contract, like Hudson’s, is set to expire soon. Will Atlanta give their hometown player a reasonable offer? This decision remains in general manager Frank Wren’s hands, but we could very well see the Braves hand McCann a low qualifying offer and allow him to leave Turner Field for greener pastures in the American League. The most uncertain piece of the Braves’ puzzle going into the offseason is second baseman Dan Uggla, who continued to cause Braves fans across the country to check their blood pressure much more often than need be. Uggla’s ability to hit home runs remained for the season, but his propensity to take strike three became even more of an issue than in years past, as “Struggla” ended the season with a franchise record 171 strikeouts. Uggla hit rock bottom for the Braves in the final month of the season, as the thirty-three year old posted a dismal .122 average with just six hits compared to twenty-one strikeouts, a performance so awful that Fredi Gonzalez opted to not only start waiver-acquisition Elliot Johnson at second base in the NLDS, but to also leave Uggla off of the postseason roster altogether. To paraphrase former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan, all Uggla does is hit home runs, which is not quite as impressive as it may sound. Despite his contract running through the 2015 season, I would not be the least bit surprised if the team finds a way to dump Uggla off to another poor sucker team and opt to pay him to simply play elsewhere. Several other Braves players from 2013 will see their contracts expire after this year; I have listed them below along with whether or not I believe they will be back for ’14: Paul Maholm, starting pitcher: No. Maholm started off the season strong but ultimately faded down the stretch, ending this season with a 10-11 record and a 4.41 ERA. The talk around the Braves lately has been that the team will look to deal for an ace, which could effectively bump Maholm out of the rotation. Reed Johnson, outfielder: Yes. Johnson is probably a push to remain with the team, but the former Cub was part of a Braves bench that pretty much did what they had to time and time again. Johnson’s numbers in 2013 were by no means spectacular (.244 average with 1 HR in 123 at-bats), but you can never have too many capable players on standby, especially after the amount of injuries this year’s edition of the Braves faced. Luis Ayala, relief pitcher: Yes. Ayala had a decent season for Atlanta, appearing in thirty-seven games and posting a 3.90 ERA as part of a Braves bullpen that combined for the lowest ERA for a National League team since 1990. Now thirty-five years old, Ayala missed a significant part of the season due to anxiety issues, so it is not a lock that he would return to the Braves next year or with any team for that matter, but Atlanta would be mistaken not to at least discuss bringing him back. Scott Downs, relief pitcher: No. Personally, I thought Downs was a nice acquisition for the Braves, and he did a good job at solidifying the bullpen late in the season. However, a big problem with this season’s set of relievers was the number of players that went down with injury, which called for the team to acquire players from outside sources like Downs. Now thirty-seven years old and coming off of a $15 million contract, Atlanta may want to try and ask for a discount if they are interested in bringing Downs back. Eric O’Flaherty, relief pitcher: Yes. O’Flaherty had been almost as reliable as Craig Kimbrel from 2009 to 2012 and looked poised to have another fine season when he was lost for the season due to Tommy John’s surgery. Now twenty-eight years old, O’Flaherty still looks poised to continue on his path to being one of the best setup men in baseball, and while there may be some early struggles in 2014, the long-term production that O’Flaherty promises makes his recovery and adjustment time worth it for the Braves. Three Key Players for 2014 With so many potential changes on the horizon for the Braves, it is important for the known constants to perform next year. Here’s a look at three of the players that must step it up in order for the Braves have a fighting chance at winning the division for the second straight season: Kris Medlen – The starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter had an up-and-down season in 2013, finishing the year with fifteen victories (his most ever) with 157 strikeouts and a 3.11 ERA. Medlen’s best work came in the final month of the season, where he posted a perfect 4-0 mark with just four earned runs and 33 strikeouts, which was good enough to earn the Game 1 start for the Braves against the Dodgers in the NLCS. While this game did not go in Medlen’s favor, his sizzling September showed Braves’ fans that he is highly capable of developing into an ace, which should promptly dispel any more considerations of moving the Artesia, California native back to the bullpen and should instead give him some support for starting on Opening Day. Jason Heyward – Heyward’s success in 2013 correlated with the Braves’ crucial winning streaks, something that became highly evident when J-Hey was moved to the leadoff spot and helped Atlanta secure the division title. While Heyward is still lacking the consistent home run power or base-stealing speed that scouts believed he would almost immediately bring to the majors, his patience at the plate–his 73 strikeouts were the fewest in his career–has helped in his development as a very difficult out for the opposition. Now with a considerable amount of time to fully recover from his broken jaw (hopefully we have seen the last of the “Bane” batting helmet) and continue to hone his skills, Braves fans may very well see Heyward take the next step in 2014. Evan Gattis – Gattis was limited to spot starts throughout the year but did not let him derail his dreams of playing in the major leagues, and when the season was said done he had hit 21 home runs, second among rookies and fourth among the Braves, and became one of Atlanta’s favorite players thanks to the “El Oso Blanco” legend that followed him throughout the year. Although at this point nothing is guaranteed for Gattis, a decision by the Braves to allow Brian McCann walk will give the Dallas, Texas native a clear message: Atlanta trusts the great Gattis to step it up and continue to provide the Braves with the power and defensive stability behind the plate that McCann was trusted with year in and year out. What do you expect to see the Atlanta Braves do this offseason? Leave a comment and let your opinion be heard
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