LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – When discussing the Braves’ plans for 2014, the two-headed elephant in the room is Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. They are far and away the team’s highest-paid returners, and in 2013 they combined for an almost incomprehensibly bad .181 batting average with 31 homers, 121 walks and 322 strikeouts in 839 at-bats.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren made it clear Tuesday that Uggla and Upton would not merely be left to their own devices this winter in hopes they can figure out how to get back on track. There will be plans designed for each, worked out between the players and hitting coaches Greg Walker and assistant Scott Fletcher.
“They’re two different situations, two different people, so you’ve got to approach it two different ways,” Gonzalez said.
Unless the Braves are able to trade Uggla this winter, they will pay him $13 million in 2014 in the fourth year of a five-year contract. He hit .179 last season, worst among major league qualifiers, with career-lows in on-base percentage (.309) and slugging percentage (.362). He broke his own franchise strikeout record with 171 in a career-low 537 plate appearances.
“We’ve got to get him fixed,” Gonzalez said. “Here’s a guy that in his first five seasons did something that no other second baseman had ever done (Uggla hit 154 home runs in his first five seasons). And this year when he hit (.179) he still hit 20 home runs and walked a bunch. So it’s still there. He’s a guy that Walk and Fletch, we’re going to have to get him straightened out.
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“But the first contact has to be by me, work that relationship and get that straightened out.”
Gonzalez will meet with Uggla to hash things out. They haven’t talked since Uggla reacted angrily over being left off the playoff roster in October. Gonzalez thinks the relationship they had since their years together with the Marlins can be repaired.
“He’s a competitor, and I think he’ll be fine,” Gonzalez said. “He just got married last weekend, and he’s on his honeymoon, so I’m going to leave him alone for seven, eight, 10 days. Whether it’s the beginning of the year or after Christmas, we’ll make contact with him. And sit him down and talk to him and try to fix him.”
Uggla had LASIK surgery late last summer in hopes that improved vision would help end his hitting woes. It didn’t, but a few months in the offseason could help the veteran second baseman adjust to the vision corrections. The Braves also want him to make some changes in his free-swinging approach.
All the while, they will try to trade him, no small task considering the $26 million he’s owed over the next two seasons. The Braves know they would have to eat a big chunk of that to trade him, but how much isn’t clear yet.
Upton, 29, recently began his offseason hitting work at home in Tampa. Braves hitting coaches will soon discuss with him a plan that they hope can help the center fielder get back to being the hitter he was a few years ago. Gonzalez said he and/or the hitting coaches would travel to Tampa or Upton would come to Atlanta for some sessions.
The older brother of Braves left fielder Justin Upton, B.J. has a $13.45 million salary in 2014, the second season of a five-year contract that includes annual salary increases up to $16.45 million in 2017.
His .184 average was 53 points below his previous low, and his career-worst OBP (.268) and slugging percentage (.289) were 68 and 133 points, respectively, below his averages in those categories during eight seasons with Tampa Bay before he signed the largest free-agent contract ($75.25 million) in Braves history.
“Obviously, I’m sure the season the 2013 season is not going to be one of his favorite seasons because of the numbers,” Gonzalez said. “But there is a lot of talent there. There are a lot of tools, a lot of potential still. So we’re going to try to get him (to be) what he was in Tampa again, the guy that we wanted.
“I think every good major league baseball player, there’s a season in the back of their baseball card that you may want to forget. Maybe 2013 is one of those seasons for B.J. He’s still a young guy. We’ll get him going again.”
O’Flaherty update: Wren said he had “good conversations” with the representative for Braves free-agent reliever Eric O’Flaherty, one of the majors’ top setup men, who was limited to 19 appearances in 2013 before “Tommy John” elbow surgery. The Nationals are among the other teams pursuing O’Flaherty, who could be ready to pitch by May.
“He’s progressing well with his Tommy John (rehab),” Gonzalez said. “I’ve got my fingers crossed that we can do something, because he’s a big part of our organization and our bullpen.”