(SportsNetwork.com) - Despite a disappointing exit from last season's playoffs, the Atlanta Braves have to feel pretty good about the direction they are headed.
Expected to battle the Washington Nationals for supremacy in the NL East, the Braves won 13 of their first 15 and were 17-9 by the end of April. That quick start allowed Atlanta to battle through some injuries and consistent play meant the club was never challenged down the stretch en route to its first division crown since 2005.
Key relievers Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters were lost to season-ending elbow injuries early on, catcher Brian McCann was sidelined at the campaign's onset, starter Tim Hudson sustained a season-ending leg injury in late June and outfielder Jason Heyward missed time with a fractured jaw.
That didn't stop the Braves from leading the NL East by as much as 15 1/2 games in late August, an advantage that swelled during a 14-game winning streak from July 26-Aug. 9.
Atlanta finished fourth in the NL in runs scored and led the league with 181 homers, with Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Evan Gattis and McCann all smashing at least 20 home runs.
That power helped the division champs overcome a league-high 1,384 strikeouts, as did a bullpen earned run average that finished at a club-record 2.46.
But the Braves got cold at the wrong time and were ousted in four games by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
The good news for Atlanta is it returns a core that features a number of players that are 25 years old or younger, including Freeman, Heyward, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, closer Craig Kimbrel and starters Julio Teheran and Alex Wood.
The bad news is that injuries have already started to plague the rotation, one that was to be considered a strength.
2013 FINISH (96-66) - 1st Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Gavin Floyd (RHP), Ryan Doumit (OF/C), Luis Vasquez (RHP), Ervin Santana (RHP), Zach Stewart (RHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Brian McCann (C), Tim Hudson (RHP)), Paul Maholm (LHP), Eric O'Flaherty (LHP), Reed Johnson (OF), Kameron Loe (RHP), Luis Ayala (RHP), Scott Downs (LHP), Paul Janish (SS)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Jason Heyward (RF), Justin Upton (LF), Freddie Freeman (1B), Evan Gattis (C), Chris Johnson (3B), Andrelton Simmons (SS), Dan Uggla (2B), B.J. Upton (CF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Julio Teheran (RHP), Mike Minor (LHP), Ervin Santana (RHP), Alex Wood (LHP), David Hale (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Craig Kimbrel (RHP)
MANAGER: Fredi Gonzalez
HOW DO THE BRAVES REPLACE MCCANN AND HUDSON?
With the offseason departures of McCann and Hudson, coupled with the retirement of Chipper Jones prior to last year, the Braves have officially begun the next chapter of their franchise.
So who fills the void?
Gattis has some big shoes to fill as McCann was a seven-time All-Star and five-time winner of a Silver Slugger award during his nine seasons with the Braves, hitting .277 with 176 homers and 661 RBI. That earned the 30-year-old a massive five-year, $85 million contract with the New York Yankees.
The Braves, though, feel comfortable going with Gattis behind the plate and certainly shouldn't see a drop in their power numbers. The 27-year-old Gattis mashed 21 homers a season ago in just 354 at-bats, spelling an injured McCann early in the season before coming off the bench and eventually earning a starting job in the outfield.
Atlanta also lost Hudson to the San Francisco Giants, who handed the 38-year- old a two-year deal.
While the Braves will miss the veteran leadership of McCann behind the plate and Hudson on the mound, their set for the future in young arms. Teheran, signed a six-year deal in February, finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting as he went 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA. He fanned 170 batters and led all major league rookies with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.78.
The right-handed Teheran can form a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with southpaw Mike Minor, a 26-year-old 13-game winner from a season ago who posted a similar line to Teheran, including a team-high 181 strikeouts.
SPEAKING OF THE ROTATION, HOW IS IT LOOKING?
It was looking pretty solid until spring training, when Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen suffered elbow injuries that will lead to both undergoing a second Tommy John surgery.
That morphed a young rotation into one scrambling to fill holes. The injuries actually forced the Braves to sacrifice a draft pick to sign right-hander Ervin Santana in mid-March.
Atlanta's depth in the rotation will pay off as both Wood and David Hale can slide right into the starting five. The left-handed Wood went 3-3 with a 3.13 ERA in 31 games (11 starts) with the Braves last season after notching a 1.31 ERA in the minors, while Hale is one of Atlanta's better pitching prospects.
The club's move to sign former Chicago White Sox starter Gavin Floyd over the winter also takes on added significance. He is another veteran piece who may be able to join the rotation in May following his own Tommy John procedure.
CAN B.J. UPTON AND UGGLA REBOUND?
The Braves put up impressive numbers offensively a season ago despite struggles by B.J. Upton and Uggla.
Atlanta signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million deal and later traded to get his younger brother Justin from the Arizona Diamondbacks. And while the latter Upton put up decent numbers in his first season with the Braves, B.J. Upton struggled to a .184 average and .557 OPS and was coming off the bench by the end of September and playoffs.
While the elder Upton has never been one to hit for average, his season was still a large disappointment in Atlanta.
Uggla, meanwhile, has failed to have a huge impact since getting added to the Braves' mix, having hit just .213 in his three seasons. But things hit a new low in 2013, with the second baseman hitting just .179 and finding himself on the bench for a chunk of August.
While the Braves will be patient with B.J. Upton, they will likely be making calls trying to move Uggla, who is still owed $26 million for the next two years.
Early on, the pressure will be off B.J. Upton as he won't need to hit near the top of the order thanks to Heyward, who batted .322 in 30 games out of the leadoff spot in 2013, a move that helped spark a winning run for the Braves.
X-FACTOR: FREDDIE FREEMAN
The Atlanta Braves for a long time were known as Chipper Jones' team. The franchise enters its second season since his retirement having found his probable leadership replacement in Freeman, who signed a club-record contract worth $135 million over eight years. That will put some pressure on the slugging first baseman, but also makes the clubhouse his without dispute. It is always a good thing to have a designated leader and Freeman can certainly back it up on the field, having hit .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBI in 147 games last season. Freeman is the center piece for a batting order that may have some issues and if he struggles, so will the Braves.
Atlanta has rebuilt itself with a nice core that should set the club up for an extended run of being a playoff contender .The Braves had finished second in three straight seasons before winning the NL East last year, its first crown since 2005.
That was the last of 14 in a row for the Braves and while another run like that will be hard to duplicate, Atlanta should emerge as one of the top teams in the NL.
General manager Frank Wren will be forced to keep an eye on the starting rotation market due to injury and that hit at the club's depth may make it more of a wild card team this season than a repeat division winner.