The 2013 Atlanta Braves have their eyes set on a deep postseason run, but it's never too early to look toward the future. Once again, the offense will center around Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton and the recently injured Jason Heyward, who seemingly can't stay healthy a full season.
The biggest question mark is the future of catcher Brian McCann. The 29-year-old is set to be a free agent and could command major attention on the free-agent market.
With that said, here's the likely 2014 Opening Day lineup:
- Jason Heyward, RF
- Chris Johnson, 3B
- Freddie Freeman, 1B
- Justin Upton, LF
- Evan Gattis, C
- Dan Uggla, 2B
- B.J. Upton, CF
- Andrelton Simmons, SS
Heyward embraced the leadoff spot this season and succeeded in that role. In 22 games, his slash line read .341/.414/.580. He also scored 24 runs, drove in 15 men while only striking out 16 times. The combination of his success and the lack of a leadoff hitter among the starters gives reason to believe Heyward will get the first shot at the spot in 2014.
The No. 2-4 hitters could go in a number of directions, but Johnson, Freeman and Upton would make for a solid combination. Johnson has arguably been the most pleasant surprise for the Braves in 2014, as he is currently second in the National League with a .331 batting average. His consistency at the plate would make him a perfect No. 2 hitter.
Freeman has been the best overall hitter for the Braves this season (.314 average and 83 RBI), and manager Fredi Gonzalez seems to like him in the No. 3 hole. He'll likely remain in that spot.
While Upton has heated up in August hitting in the No. 2 hole (eight home runs), it's hard to imagine him projecting long-term in that spot. It would make sense to slide him back into a run-producing position as the team's cleanup hitter.
That brings us to the starting catcher in 2014, which will be Evan Gattis. Gattis' emergence this season (15 home runs in 77 games) will make it easier for the Braves to move on from McCann.
Christian Bethancourt has also progressed nicely at the plate this season at double-A for the Mississippi Braves. He recently reached base in 39 straight games to raise his average to .288 on the season. The combination of Gattis and Bethancourt gives the Braves a pair of nice catchers in their system in the near future.
The bottom third of the order features the two most scrutinized Braves in Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. Perhaps Braves fans will be happy to see Uggla return to the lineup after watching Paul Janish struggle to hit over .100 (.115 in 30 plate appearances). And like it or not, Upton will be the starting center fielder in 2014.
The elder Upton has been hard to watch for most of this season, hitting .183 with a .266 on-base percentage. However, he will be in year two of a five-year deal that is the richest contract in Braves' history. The team will not give up on him after just one season, and a fresh start will be the theme of the offseason for him.
Rounding out the order is shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Simmons could be a candidate for the leadoff spot, but he hit just .222 with a .259 OBP in the spot this season. As a natural free swinger, his talents are best served at the bottom of the order.
There are a number of different combinations and factors that could alter what the 2014 starting lineup looks like. Based on the information we have now, this lineup would allow the offense to succeed as a unit.
Once again, the offense for the Braves in 2014 will be one of the most dangerous offenses in the National League.
All statistics according to Baseball-Reference.