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David O'Brien

The daunting task: Get B.J. and Uggla back on track

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B.J. Upton (left) and Dan Uggla had career-worst performances in 2013.

B.J. Upton (left) and Dan Uggla had career-worst performances in 2013.

In the past 100 years there have been just eight times when a major league hitter batted below .185 in a season in which he had at least 350 at-bats. Remarkably, the NL East champion Braves had two of those eight cases last year in Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, who also happened to be the team’s highest-paid players, with two and four years remaining on their respective contracts.

To repeat, those two Braves accounted for fully one quarter of the past century’s case studies in which a big leaguer batted .185 or lower in 350 or more at-bats. Think about that.

Some might suggest that puts hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant Scott Fletcher, who return on one-year contracts, in a challenging situation, to say the least. But Walker, a veteran former player and coach, insists he’s excited about the challenge or opportunity, however you want to look at it. (Some might call the assignment daunting, or worse.)

“If I didn’t think the two guys had the desire to be good, I wouldn’t be as excited,” Walker said Friday. “These two guys don’t want to have another year like that. I can’t say put it in stone that everything’s going to be rosy, but I’m optimistic.

Upton, in the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract – the largest free-agent deal in Braves history – batted .184 and a .268 OBP in 391 at-bats, with 14 doubles, nine homers, 26 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 126 games.

Uggla, in the third year of his five-year, $62 million contract, batted .179 with a .309 OBP in 448 at-bats, with 10 doubles, 22 home runs and 55 RBIs in 136 games.

The two of them struck out 322 times in 839 at-bats.

The Braves have tried to trade Uggla this offseason but found no takers interesting in paying any significant part of the $26 million he’s still owed over the next two seasons. At this point it looks as if they won’t be able to trade the veteran second baseman unless another team has an injury or two in the spring, and/or Uggla shows he can reverse the two-year erosion in his offensive performance and be a significantly better hitter than he was in 2013.

“I think both of them are going to be fine mentally,” Walker said. “We just need to see where there swings are. Until we get to spring training and see live fire, we won’t really know much.”

Uggla got married in the offseason and has been working out with several teammates in the northern Atlanta suburbs. Walker said Uggla has a batting cage at his house and that Fletcher or Walker planned to start working with Uggla some in the next week or two.

B.J. Upton has been working out at his home in Tampa and began hitting earlier than he usually does in the offseason, traveling to Arizona before Christmas and hitting with his brother and Braves teammate Justin Upton in the batting cage that Justin has in his new home in Scottsdale.

Walker said White Sox veteran Paul Konerko, one of Walker’s prized pupils during his tenure as White Sox hitting coach, has agreed to start working with Justin Upton in Arizona, along with another friend of Walker’s who is a hitting coach out there. He said Justin liked the idea and agreed to have Konerko come out and start hitting with him.

While Justin Upton’s first season with the Braves was inconsistent, he still ended up with 27 doubles, 27 homers (including a team-record 12 in April), a solid .354 OBP and an .818 OPS. He’s not a concern for the Braves.

B.J. Upton is, whether they say so publicly or not.

The Braves have told B.J. to put last year behind and focus on a fresh start. The Braves believe he struggled like so many other free agents have in recent years after switching teams and, in some cases such as B.J.’s, also switching leagues. He had previously spent his entire career in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

“He’s got to get more efficient” with his swing, Walker said. “We agreed for him to take a emntal break, take some time to get away from it. We have six or seven weeks of spring training, and we have the next month. Just try to get more efficient. The talent level is there, the work ethic, the desire is there. Just a matter of tightening things back up.”

Walker, who lives in south Georgia, will likely travel to Tampa in the next few weeks to work some with B.J. and see where his swing’s at, to get an idea of what they still need to work on during spring training. Braves first-base coach (and former hitting coach) Terry Pendleton has also offered to go to Tampa to work with him.

B.J. has also tried to add some weight in the offseason after losing pounds over the course of the season in his first year with the Braves, hisfirst major league season playing home games outdoors.

• How bad were they? It wasn’t just the raw basic numbers, but the situation hitting where Uggla and B.J. Upton struggled to a staggering degree.

Of the 359 major leaguers who had at least 50 plate appearances with runners in scoring position in 2013, B.J. ranked 358th with a .108 average (10-for-93), ahead of only Adam Rosales (.095) of the A’s and Rangers. While Rosales had nine strikeouts in those 42 at-bats, Upton struck out 42 times in 93 at-bats with runners in scoring position, with one home run, 16 walks and .233 OBP and .405 OPS.

He went hitless in 28 at-bats with a runner at third.

Meanwhile, Uggla ranked 351st out of 359 with a .137 average (14-for-102) with runners in scoring position, albeit with five homers, 25 walks and a .305 OBP to go with 40 strikeouts.

B.J. and Uggla combined to go 24-for-195 (.123) with runners in scoring position, while teammate Freddie Freeman went 58-for-131 (.443), the second-highest RISP average in the majors (minimum 50 PAs) behind St. Louis’ Allen Craig (.454, 59-for-130).

Freeman had a majors-leading .541 OBP in those situations and a 1.236 OPS that ranked third behind American League MVP Miguel Cabrera (1.311) and the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez (1.236).

In 2013, Uggla posted the lowest slugging percentage in history for any player with 22 or more homers.

In 2013, Uggla posted the lowest slugging percentage in history for any player with 22 or more homers.

• Uggla season oddity: There have been 2,786 seasons of 22 or more homers by major league hitters since 1901, and none of them slugged as low as Uggla’s .362 in his 22-homer season in 2013. In fact, nobody slugged lower than .379 in the 2,784 other cases. A hitter has slugged under .400 only 15 times in a season with at least 22 homers.

Only 17 times in those 2,786 seasons of 22 or more homers did the hitter have an OPS below .700, and Uggla’s .671 tied for the fifth-lowest of that group. It was 11 points higher than Vernon Well’s .660 OPS in his 25-homer season in 2011, the lowest ever for a season of 22 or more homers. Wells hit .218 with a .248 OBP..

Just 30 hitters have hit below .220 while hitting 22 or more homers in a season, and Uggla’s .179 average tied Rob Deer for lowest in that group. Deer hit .179 with 25 homers for Detroit in 1991, with 64 RBIs, a league-leading 175 strikeouts and a .700 OPS.

• Plan now for Cooperstown: Actually, you’ll likely be booking rooms 20 or more miles from Cooperstown if you’ve waited until now to line up accomodations for Bravesfest, aka Hall of Fame induction weekend.

I’d get on it now if you hope to stay anywhere near the little village in upstate New York for induction weekend including the Sunday, July 27 ceremony. If nothing else, you can stay closer to Albany or downstate and drive a couple of hours to town for the induction ceremony or both weekend days and stop by the many souvenir shops, autograph stands and all the other attractions weekend in the quaint little downtown area of Cooperstown.

Tickets to the ceremony are free and there’s almost unlimited seating. Here’s a link, http://baseballhall.org/hofweekend, that should give you all the info you need, or numbers or other links where you can find what you need. I booked a room through Travelocity a few weeks ago, and I’m 18 miles from Cooperstown.

• On long-term extensions: There was part of a comment on the blog the other day, about signing young Braves to potential long-term extensions. A lot of other Braves fans have expressed similar opinions, some focused on Jason Heyward, others on Andrelton Simmons, some on Craig Kimbrel. Anyway, the reader wrote:

“My main thing is getting Freddie locked up. He should be number 1 on Wren’s list.”VaBravesFan

My opinion: I agree he (Freddie Freeman) should be signed long-term. I think Simmons should be No. 1, but Freeman real close. And Heyward, they’d like to sign long-term but I get the impression that the Braves believe there’s not been willingness for compromise from both sides in informal discussions they’ve had in past.

And now with Heyward only two years from free agency, might be especially tough to get him to take anything less — in exchange for security — than the amount he believes he’ll get as a free agent. Because now the security doesn’t mean as much, with only two years till free agency, as it would’ve meant a year or two ago, which is the point where teams generally sign their young stars to long-terms deals that buy out some free agency.

Simmons, with less than two years of major league service and still two seasons from arbitration, is in a prime position for the Braves to approach him about a long-term deal, in my opinion. While security still means a lot to him.

Plus, he’s never struck me as someone set on getting maximum dollars. Granted, I’ve never come right out and asked him that or heard him address it, but he just seems driven more by a desire to be the best shortstop in the game. (And that’s not to say that Freeman or Heyward aren’t similarly driven, for I’ve never heard either of them say anything to the contrary.)

• Braves fan club event: The Braves 400 Fan Club will host its annual winter banquet and fundraiser Jan. 25 (5 p.m.) at the Atlanta Marriott Perimeter Center. The theme this year is “Braves in the Baseball Hall of Fame” and the emcee is once again Pete Van Wieren, the longtime former Braves broadcasting great.

The event starts with a gala, silent auction and raffle of Braves memorabilia, and an awards dinner follows at 6:30 p.m. Awards will be presented to Atlanta-area high school players, Georgia scholar-athlete award winners Zane Evans and Kyle Wren, and Braves minor leaguers including top pitching prospect Lucas Sims.

Admision is advance reservation only, and the deadline to purchase tickets is Jan. 21. None will be sold at the door. Tickets are $75 for club members and $80 for non-members, and attendees will get dinner and a “well-stocked goody bag,” according to the 400 Fan Club press release.

Reservations can be made at the club website at http://www.braves400.org or by mailing at check to the Braves 400 Club, P.O. Box 7689, Atlanta, 30357-0689. For more info, please call the 400 Fan Club hotline at 770-416-4539.

Advance reservation only,  with a Jan. 21 deadline for ticket purchases. No tickets will be sold at the door. The cost is $75 for club members and $80 for non-members. Admission includes dinner and a well-stocked goody bag. Make reservations on the Club’s website (www.braves400.org) or by mailing a check to the Braves 400 Club, P.O. Box 7689, Atlanta, GA 30357-0689. Further information is available on the Club’s hotline (770-416-4539).

The Big Music: I’ll close with a Waterboys tune from their spectacular “Big Music” era, my favorite song off their self-titled album. You can hear the studio version by clicking here and a terrific live version by clicking here.

The Waterboys

The Waterboys

“THIS IS THE SEA” by The Waterboys

These things you keep
You’d better throw them away
You wanna turn your back
On your soulless days
Once you were tethered 
And now you are free
Once you were tethered
Well now you are free
That was the river
This is the sea!

Now if you’re feelin’ weary
If you’ve been alone too long
Maybe you’ve been suffering from
A few too many
Plans that have gone wrong
And you’re trying to remember
How fine your life used to be
Running around banging your drum
Like it’s 1973
Well that was the river
This is the sea!
Wooo!

Now you say you’ve got trouble
You say you’ve got pain
You say’ve got nothing left to believe in
Nothing to hold on to
Nothing to trust
Nothing but chains
You’re scouring your conscience
Raking through your memories
Scouring your conscience
Raking through your memories
But that was the river
This is the sea yeah!

Now I can see you wavering
As you try to decide
You’ve got a war in your head
And it’s tearing you up inside
You’re trying to make sense
Of something that you just can’t see
Trying to make sense now
And you know you once held the key
But that was the river
And this is the sea!
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!

Now I hear there’s a train
It’s coming on down the line
It’s yours if you hurry
You’ve got still enough time
And you don’t need no ticket
And you don’t pay no fee
No you don’t need no ticket
You don’t pay no fee
Because that was the river
And this is the sea!

Behold the sea!

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