While the 2013 season ended in disappointing fashion for the Atlanta Braves, the future still remains bright for the organization.
The nucleus of the team will remain in Atlanta, with the organization having control over their young players for the next few seasons.
There are some questions facing this team as the offseason begins. The catcher and second baseman positions appear to be the biggest questions at the moment.
We will obviously know more about these questions over time, but here's a look at a projected lineup for the Braves in 2014.
1. Jason Heyward RF
2. Andrelton Simmons SS
3. Freddie Freeman 1B
4. Justin Upton LF
5. Evan Gattis C
6. Chris Johnson 3B
7. B.J. Upton CF
8. Tommy La Stella 2B
The biggest differences in this lineup from 2013 are the omissions of Brian McCann and Dan Uggla.
In regards to McCann, it is unlikely the Braves will be able to resign McCann or are willing to offer the 29-year-old catcher a long-term deal. Reports have surfaced that McCann could strike a $100 million deal. If that's how the market perceives McCann, the Braves will not touch a deal in that neighborhood.
The Braves are prepared to move forward at the catcher position with Evan Gattis, Christian Bethancourt and Gerald Laird—with Gattis the clear leader to land the job and Laird serving as his backup.
Now on to Uggla, who was controversially left off the Braves' playoff roster against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That move signaled to me that the Braves are ready to move on from Uggla, who has hit .233, .220 and .179 with 156, 168 and 171 strikeouts in his three seasons at Atlanta.
Moving Uggla will not be easy, as he has two years left on his deal and is owed $26 million. For the Braves to trade him, the team will likely have to eat at least $20 million of that contract. Doing that would open the door to promote prospect Tommy La Stella and make it his job to lose.
The Braves love to play their young players, and La Stella could be the next guy to get his shot.
The 24-year-old and former eighth-round draft pick has hit .328, .299 and .356 with a .401, .389 and .444 OBP over the past three seasons in the minors.
Obviously, minor league success doesn't necessarily translate to the MLB level, but there is no denying the consistent production from the left-handed hitter. He doesn't have the power of Uggla (20 home runs in the minors), but he still has posted impressive OPS numbers of .944, .855 and .936 in his three seasons.
I'd expect the Braves to give him the chance to win the job in spring training.
If he were to totally bomb in spring training, Ramiro Pena or Tyler Pastornicky could serve as short-term solutions (assuming Uggla were to be traded).
As for the lineup itself, Jason Heyward remains as the team's leadoff hitter, as he seemed to embrace and flourish in that role last season. He hit .322 with a .954 OPS in 30 games out of the leadoff spot. As a whole, the Braves' offense fed off of his production.
Following him in the lineup is Andrelton Simmons.
Moving him here would allow him to further develop as a hitter hitting in between Heyward and Freddie Freeman. While Simmons is a natural free swinger, he showed signs of becoming more disciplined at the plate as the season went on with an .OBP above .300 in the last three months of the season.
He could really benefit from hitting with good protection around him.
Freeman should remain in the No. 3 hole as the team's best hitter, which would make Justin Upton a strong candidate for the cleanup spot.
Upton found some success hitting in the second spot, but look for the team's leader with 27 home runs to return to more of a run-producing spot in the order to build on his 70 RBI season in 2013.
Gattis has potential hitting in the No. 5 hole, and Chris Johnson is a very nice option hitting sixth. I wouldn't expect Johnson to hit .321 again, but the career .289 hitter has shown to have a steady approach at the plate.
And while the Uggla experiment may be coming to an end, the B.J. Upton experiment will enter year two. The Braves invested a lot of time and money into Upton. He will start in center field and hit at the bottom of the order in what he hopes is a rebound season.
The 2013 MLB season is not completely finished yet, but it is still fun to project what the future will bring.
That's my way-too-early projection on the Atlanta Braves' starting lineup in 2014.
All statistics according to Baseball-Reference.
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