The Braves returned to Turner Field on Tuesday - not to prepare for a Game 5 showdown with Los Angeles, but to clean out their lockers after a disappointing quick end to their playoff run.
With a 4-3 loss on Monday, the Braves can only look forward to figure out how to close holes exploited by the Dodgers during their four-game series. It has now been twelve years since the Braves last won a playoff series - they have lost a wild-card game play-in and six NLDS during that time.
Here are five questions the Braves will have to answer for 2014:
1. What happens to Dan Uggla and B. J. Upton?
Uggla is now a $26 million albatross on the Braves' roster. After getting left off the team's NLDS roster, Uggla will likely be gone via trade at the winter meetings. Whether the Braves are able to get any return on Uggla will likely depend on how much salary they are willing to eat to get him out of town.
Upton is a bigger issue - he did improve a bit in the final two months, but the improvement only brought his average from .174 to .184. Upton will turn 30 in the middle of next season, and did not provide any threat of speed on the basepaths this year. While he was on the postseason roster, he lost significant time to Jordan Schafer and Evan Gattis and was reduced to pinch-hitting or pinch-running - not nearly worth the value of the 5-year, $72.5 million deal Upton signed a year ago. The Braves are going to be stuck with him for a while, so the best hope is going to be to coach him up rather than ship him out. No team will take on that amount of money and that time nor will the Braves be willing to eat that much money.
2. How do the Braves shake up the team's attitude and philosophy?
Fredi Gonzalez is getting some flack for his use of the bullpen in this series, but going to David Carpenter instead of Craig Kimbrel in Game 4 was not a bad move - Carpenter has been a dominant set up man all year. Gonzalez was getting more flack for giving Uggla over 500 plate appearances. The team as a whole lacked discipline at the plate, a fault that can squarely be placed on the hitting coach. Greg Walker has, for the past two seasons, overseen a Braves' offense that has dropped precipitously in every offensive category except home runs, and may be the scapegoat. Assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher could also not come back. A change there could help send a new message
3. Is there enough talent on this pitching staff for a deep run in 2014?
Yes. The staff had a league-best ERA (3.18) and second-best WHIP (1.20 walks and hits per inning). The team was also second with 102 quality starts. Despite serious injuries to Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy, the rotation served the club well with Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, and Mike Minor all winning 13+ games. The bullpen was best in the majors. The staff could use another starter, though, as the last spot after Paul Maholm was held together by starts from Hudson (before his injury), David Hale, Freddy Garcia, and Alex Wood. Even without improvement, though, it's a darn good staff.
4. Can this team stop striking out and relying on the long ball so much?
The Braves, despite leading the NL with 181 home runs, had just one long ball during their series with the Dodgers. The club hit only .249 during the regular season - 20th in the majors - and hit just .214 in the playoffs. Aside from Chris Johnson, Evan Gattis, and Freddie Freeman the bats were mostly silent in the playoffs, as the Braves averaged 10.5 strikeouts per game after dubiously leading the league in the category (8.54 K/game) during the year. The Braves need a lot more discipline at the plate, as this weakness will be exploited by any good pitching staff - as we saw this past week.
5. Will Brian McCann be back?
That's a tough question to answer. Despite being sidelined with injuries and rest for almost 60 games this season, McCann still had 20 HR for the sixth straight season, and notched his seventh straight All-Star nod from behind the plate. He also went 0-for-13 during the playoffs, and will turn 30 over the offseason. It depends on what he wants - if he wants an Upton-type deal, the Braves may let him walk. It would be a shame, because McCann has carried the Braves often and is one of their more likeable players. Let's hope he does return, because he will be courted by many other teams (including the Yankees, who are already preparing an offer for him) and it would be a shame to see him in another team's uniform.