LAKELAND, Fla. — Coming off his second consecutive career-worst season, Dan Uggla did a lot of swing work this winter and came in more focused than in past spring trainings on getting good results and establishing momentum before opening day.
The Braves second baseman hit .280 with four homers and a .406 on-base percentage in 50 at-bats before Thursday’s Grapefruit League finale against the Tigers. He led the National League with 11 walks and ranked among NL leaders in homers (four) and RBIs (team-high 14) before Thursday.
“I feel better than I’ve ever felt (in the spring), as far as knowing where I’m at and knowing my swing,” Uggla said. “It’s not a new swing, I just got back to where I was before.”
A year ago, Uggla hit .200 with a .268 OBP in spring training, with two homers, three walks and 25 strikeouts in 75 at-bats. He batted a majors-worst .179 during the season with 22 homers and career-lows in RBIs (55), OBP (.309) and slugging (.362), and a franchise-record 171 strikeouts in 448 at-bats.
Things got so bad, he went on the disabled list to have LASIK eye surgery in August, and was left off the postseason roster after returning from the DL for the final month of the season.
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is one of his closest friends and worked out with Uggla and a few other teammates throughout the offseason. He sounds even more excited talking about Uggla’s spring than Uggla does.
“It’s amazing,” Freeman said. “The person he is, everybody that knows him and the kind of teammate he is, you hurt for him, what he went through last year was tough for all of us – and definitely for him. You just want your friends and teammates to do so well. The spring he’s having, after how hard he worked – I got to see it firsthand in the offseason – just to see the results carry over to spring training is amazing.
“I think if he can carry that over into the season, you might see him move up the lineup.”
For now, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is leaning toward batting Uggla and catcher Evan Gattis in the sixth and seventh spots, probably in that order, behind left fielder Justin Upton in the fifth spot and ahead of shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Gonzalez plans to start out the season with Jason Heyward batting leadoff, followed by B.J. Upton, Freeman and third baseman Chris Johnson in the cleanup position.
Johnson is a bit of an unconventional choice, as his 12 home runs in 2013 ranked eighth on a team with five who hit at least 20. But he was second in the NL with a .321 batting average, and 10th in the league at .336 with runners in scoring position.
“He puts the ball in play, so if that’s what they’re thinking about doing I think it’s a good idea,” Freeman said. “But we have a lot of people who can hit fourth on our team. We have Dan hitting sixth, who’s hit fourth his whole career. It doesn’t matter where any of us hit, it’s like (number) 3-4 (hitters) up and down the lineup, with Jason leading off — he could be hitting third in every lineup in the big leagues. So it’s a pretty even lineup throughout.”
Uggla said, “I think Chris in the four-hole is a great thing to put behind Freddie. Freddie is the guy that other teams aren’t going to let beat them this year. So if there’s a guy on with a base open, Freddie’s going to get intentionally walked. Chris makes a lot of contact, and gets a lot of hits. He’s got a great approach to fit that spot. He’s not going to go, ‘Oh, they walked Freddie now I’ll get up there and hit a homer.’ He’s going to battle and he’s going to put the ball in play, and he’s one of the best at getting hits.
“So I think it’s a great thing. You’ve got Justin, me, Gatty and Simba (Simmons) coming up after that.”