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Friday February 5th, 2016 5:20PM

Youthful Braves bring optimism to spring training

By The Associated Press
Fredi Gonzalez almost couldn't contain his enthusiasm on the day Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward signed multi-year contract extensions.

The Braves' manager has good reason to be excited about his team's foundation of young stars. Freeman and Heyward are only 24. The list of key players 26 or younger also includes elite closer Craig Kimbrel, Gold Glove-winning shortstop Andrelton Simmons, outfielder Justin Upton and starting pitchers Julio Teheran and Mike Minor.

The Braves, who won the NL East in 2013, took big steps toward keeping the team together by signing Freeman and Heyward to contract extensions this month.

Gonzalez was so happy he sounded like he was ready to make a big prediction but he backed off while noting he didn't want to sound like a famous former quarterback who guaranteed a Super Bowl win.

"We have a young club that's going to ... I'm not going to Joe Namath anything, but we're going to be competitive," Gonzalez said.

"Our goal is always to win championships, We won one last year, fell short of our goal but it's nice to know that Freddie and some of the other guys are going to be here for a long time."

The Braves open spring training on Friday when pitchers and catchers have their first workout in Kissimmee, Fla.

In the last two years, Chipper Jones retired, Martin Prado was traded and Brian McCann and Tim Hudson left as free agents. What remains is the young core of a team that won 94 and 96 games the last two seasons.

Third baseman Chris Johnson and centerfielder B.J. Upton each will be 29 when the season opens. The Braves' starting position players, top five starting pitchers and closer could all be younger than 30.

The big lineup change is at catcher, where 2013 rookie Evan Gattis will take over for McCann, who signed with the Yankees.

Second baseman Dan Uggla, 33, will be fighting for a starting job after being benched last season and left off the postseason roster. Uggla and B.J. Upton, who also lost his starting job, each hit below .200 last season.

Rookie Tommy La Stella, Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky could compete with Uggla for the starting job at second base.

"Offensively, in our everyday lineup, that's all back intact," said general manager Frank Wren. "We're anxious to see B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, like everyone else. We'd like to see them bounce back.

"The rest of our club is pretty much the team that won 96 games last year, with the exception of the catcher and in that regard we're excited to see what Evan Gattis can give us in a full-time role, with Gerald Laird. We feel comfortable with where we are catching-wise."

The spring will be important for Gattis, who started more games in left field (47) than at catcher (38) as a rookie. Gattis, who hit .243 with 21 homers, must show he can be a reliable target for the still-young pitching staff.

McCann, a seven-time All-Star, leaves a big void.

"Obviously Mac is somebody most of us have pitched to our entire careers," Beachy said. "Evan showed something last year in his willingness to work. He sees his name on the lineup card catching and he's in the video room. He's sitting down in my locker talking to me.

"We're going to communicate a little more than we have in the past. That's only going to make us better."

Freeman agreed to an eight-year, $135 million deal after only three full seasons. He was an All-Star last year and finished fifth in NL MVP voting after he hit .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs.

Heyward and the Braves agreed to a $13.3 million, two-year contract.

Right-hander Freddy Garcia, 37, will compete with left-hander Alex Wood, 23, and others for the final spot in the rotation behind Minor, Teheran, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Beachy must show he has recovered from elbow ligament-replacement surgery in 2012 and a follow-up procedure last year to clean up the elbow.
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