10 Early-Season Atlanta Braves Storylines to Follow Most Closely

Gavin Andrews@@gavin_andrewsCorrespondent IIApril 9, 2013

10 Early-Season Atlanta Braves Storylines to Follow Most Closely

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    Just seven games into the season, Atlanta already has seemingly endless storylines to follow.

    There's the health of Freddie Freeman and Jonny Venters.

    There's the question of whether or not Tim Hudson has anything left in the tank.

    There's the upcoming series with the rival Washington Nationals.

    However, there are more pressing storylines that need expounding upon. Here are the top ten.

The Legend of Evan Gattis

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    Through the first seven games of Atlanta's season, rookie Evan Gattis has started four of them. 

    Behind the plate.

    In the offseason, Frank Wren brought in Gerald Laird to back up Brian McCann and take the starter's job until McCann returned from injury. 

    However, in seemingly no time at all, Gattis has won over the entire Braves organization. 

    He's had a decent start to 2013, with five hits in 15 at-bats, a walk and a home run to boot (stats found here).

    Hitting well to begin the year, Gattis will probably be given the majority of the starts behind the plate.

    If he continues to do well, Atlanta will have an interesting predicament on its hands. McCann will likely walk after this campaign, but he'll definitely warrant everyday playing time. What to do with Gattis becomes a very big question.

    As long as he keeps hitting, it will be a very good problem to have.

The Health of Brian McCann

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    While on the topic, Brian McCann is not progressing from his shoulder surgery as quickly as he would like.

    After such a disappointing 2012 campaign, McCann is itching to get his 2013 season going. His first at-bats might not come until May, though.

    He means a lot to the club's lineup, but even more than that, his ability to handle a pitching staff and lead a young team by example is sorely missed. 

    The most important thing for McCann is to make sure that he's fully recovered before he hits the field. A healthy McCann in October is worth far more to the Braves than an injury-ridden version in April.

Andrelton Simmons and the Leadoff Spot

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    B.J. Upton may be hitting in the leadoff spot right now, but Andrelton Simmons will look to become the club's long-term leadoff hitter.

    The purpose of hitting Upton first is likely a method to get the elder Upton to see more fastballs and jump start his bat, but over the course of the season his power will play out much better lower in the lineup. 

    This also allows Simmons, a hitter with excellent contact skills and an improving walk rate, to slip into the leadoff spot.

    Hitting in front of Heyward, Freeman and the Upton brothers, Simmons could have a breakout with all the fastballs thrown his way. More fastballs seen gives him the option of being more selective, which will improve his walk rate and allow him to reach base at a higher rate. 

    And with his set of wheels, he could be good to steal upwards of 25.

    Michael Bourn may be gone, but Simmons might just be ready to assume the title of next great Braves leadoff hitter.

Paul Maholm: The Next Cliff Lee?

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    Paul Maholm has figured something out.

    In the past three years, his walk rate has dipped while his strikeout rate has climbed (stats found here)—a very promising combination of trends. 

    He doesn't throw hard (something that will hinder his ability to punch hitters out on a regular basis), but he's been locating very well and simply out-thinking hitters. 

    So far, 2013 has favored him. In 12.2 innings, Maholm has surrendered just seven hits and four walks, fanning 13 hitters.

    He will probably never become the pitcher Cliff Lee has been the last several years, but he's certainly looking to become the next obscure pitcher who's become more than very respectable.

The Third Base Conundrum

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    If you're a conspiracy theorist, the thought may have crossed your mind that Freddie Freeman was placed on the DL so that Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson would have a couple more weeks to battle over the starting third base job.

    The problem is, both have been performing pretty well. 

    Francisco has more power and is the better defender, but Johnson has been raking. 

    It's too soon to conclude which direction this battle is going, but if things continue as they are, the two will probably platoon once Freeman returns.

Julio Teheran: Breakout or Bust?

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    With the No. 5 starter's job finally his, it's time for Teheran to prove he belongs with the big league club. 

    He pitched like a man on a mission in spring training, and he'll be looking to take that into the early goings of the season.

    The Cubs touched him up for eight hits and five earned runs (stats found here), but even with first-start jitters out of the way, Teheran will most likely have to shut down the Washington Nationals if he wants to buck his poor opening to the season.

    Once he settles in, Atlanta will get to see what it truly has in this once highly-touted prospect.

Rebound Campaigns

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    Dan Uggla needs a rebound season in the worst way. 

    After hitting .287 in 2010 with the Marlins, Uggla has hit .233 and .220 in his first two seasons as a Brave, and the fans are getting restless. He needs a strong start to aid his confidence and ensure he has a successful 2013 season.

    B.J. Upton didn't exactly have the best 2012 campaign, getting on base at only a .298 clip. 

    Upton is streaky and strikes out a lot, but he has always boasted a healthy walk rate that should at least hold his value until his bat gets going.

    As Atlanta's center fielder of the future, Upton's 2013 season is very important in order to respond to his lackluster 2012. 

How Do Kris Medlen and Mike Minor Respond to 2012?

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    With Brandon Beachy hurt and Julio Teheran just a rookie, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor bear the load of the future of the rotation on their right and left arms, respectively.

    In the second half of 2012, Medlen and Minor were, without exaggerating, two of the best pitchers in baseball. Neither pitcher has outstanding stuff, but between Medlen's moxie and Minor's artistry from the left side, they have the potential to be a pretty great one-two punch this season. 

    However, because neither has the arsenal of a Justin Verlander or a Clayton Kershaw, there are many questioning whether or not Medlen and Minor are actually front line starters. 

    This season, Braves fans will discover what these pitchers truly are firsthand.

Will Jason Heyward Take the Reins?

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    When Chipper Jones retired and Martin Prado was dealt to Arizona, Atlanta was left with a very young roster in search of a leader. 

    The easy answer would be for the club to look to Brian McCann, the veteran backstop. However, if the Braves let him go this upcoming offseason, the leadership will have to change hands once more.

    An aging starter, Tim Hudson's case is similar. Lots of experience, but little time left with the team.

    Kris Medlen is not afraid to tell you what he thinks, but Atlanta's leadership should probably come from an every day player. 

    Jason Heyward is that man. 

    In 2013, Heyward should pick up where Chipper left off and become the undisputed leader of the Braves. He'll need to step up and seize the role, but he can undoubtedly thrive in the role. 

    It's time for Heyward to take charge.

Justin Upton: MVP?

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    Justin Upton has simply been unstoppable for the 2013 season.

    Six home runs in seven games. .423 batting average. 1.641 OPS. A walk-off home run.

    The man is unreal.

    In an environment conducive to Upton's growth, happiness and success, is this the year he finally puts together his massive talent? 

    If a fast start is any indication of an affirmative answer, Atlanta could be in for a special year.