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Monday May 4th, 2015 5:11PM

After rough spring, Braves ready to defend NL East

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- For the Atlanta Braves, spring training turned into a matter of survival.

No wonder they're so eager to get the season going.

The defending NL East champions lost a big chunk of their starting rotation down in Florida: projected opening day starter Kris Medlen and fellow right-hander Brandon Beachy both underwent Tommy John surgery for the second time and are out for the season. Another starter, Mike Minor, will also begin the year on the disabled list as he recovers from a sore shoulder.

But the Braves are nothing if not resourceful. They quickly signed Ervin Santana to a $14.1 million, one-year contract and have every intention of getting back to the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years.

"We still have a great team," closer Craig Kimbrel said. "It's tough losing two top pitchers. But getting Santana was really big. I want to be closing out division titles and championships and World Series. I think we've still got the group to do it."

The Braves will have a different look behind the plate after longtime catcher Brian McCann signed with the New York Yankees. But another title in a lackluster division is certainly a possibility, especially if second baseman Dan Uggla and center fielder B.J. Upton bounce back from dismal seasons in which both hit under .200. They showed signs of turning things around in spring training.

"Time will tell," general manager Frank Wren said, "but we really like what we've seen so far."

Here are five things to look for from the Braves this season:

AILING ROTATION: With Medlen and Beachy out, keep a close eye on Minor. The left-hander underwent urinary tract surgery on Dec. 31, tried to do too much too soon when he got to Florida, and wound up with a sore shoulder. A 13-game winner last season, Minor did not pitch at all during spring training and will finally make his debut in an exhibition game Saturday against a team of minor leaguers. If he gets back to form, the Braves should still have a respectable rotation when the lefty joins Santana, 14-game winner Julio Teheran, promising youngster Alex Wood and possibly another late signee, Aaron Harang.

COMEBACK KIDS: If patching together the rotation is the No. 1 priority, then 1-A is getting Upton and Uggla back on track. After signing a $75.25 million contract, Upton was one of the biggest free-agent busts in baseball history, hitting a career-worst .184 with nine homers and 26 RBIs. By the playoffs, he was just a very expensive backup. But Upton is only 29 and the Braves have invested too much money to give up on him. Uggla, making $13 million a year, batted .179 with 171 strikeouts before being left off the postseason roster altogether. Again, the Braves have little choice except to stick with Uggla, who led the team in homers and RBIs during the spring.

REPLACING MCCANN: It will seem strange not having McCann behind the plate. A hometown favorite, he held down the catcher's job for nearly a decade. McCann will be replaced by last year's rookie surprise, Evan Gattis, who had 21 homers and 65 RBIs filling a variety of roles. The Braves have some insurance if Gattis falters - Gerald Laird and newcomer Ryan Doumit, acquired in a trade from Minnesota.

HEYWARD LEADS OFF: An appendectomy cost right fielder Jason Heyward nearly four weeks early in the season, and he was out a month after getting struck in the face with a pitch in August. He posted good numbers after moving into the leadoff role, and that's where he'll stay this season. While only 24, it's time for Heyward to put up the sort of production that was expected from him after his splashy debut in 2010. His best season was two years ago, when he batted .269 with 27 homers and 82 RBIs. He seems capable of much more.

BUILDING THE PEN: The Braves have one of the best closers in baseball with Kimbrel, who had 50 saves and a 1.21 ERA. Beyond the hard-throwing right-hander, there are plenty of question marks. Dave Carpenter (4-1, 1.78) did a surprisingly good job taking over as the main setup man in 2013 - until he got to the playoffs, where he surrendered a series-losing homer to the Dodgers. It will be interesting to see how Carpenter responds to that setback. Eric O'Flaherty departed as a free agent, and Jonny Venters is still recovering from his second Tommy John surgery.
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