The Atlanta Braves usually start the season touted as playoff contenders.
Not this time.
For one of the few times in the last two-plus decades, not much is expected of a team that collapsed late last season, fired general manager Frank Wren and underwent a massive overhaul during the offseason.
The Braves dealt away sluggers Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis, receiving only one player (starting pitcher Shelby Miller) who is likely to make a significant impact right away. Mostly, the team was focused on restocking a once-mighty farm system that fell on hard times during Wren's regime.
The message was clear: The Braves are rebuilding under new GM John Hart, with an eye toward the 2017 opening of the team's new suburban stadium.
"It's kind of on us to just put our heads down and work hard and try to win as many games as we can with the team we've got," third baseman Chris Johnson said. "We can't look back. We can't look at who's gone."
The Braves are likely to remain one of the most offensively challenged teams in baseball, but the pitching staff at least looks promising. The 24-year-old Miller had 25 wins for St. Louis over the last two season and joins a rotation that already includes two more 24-year-olds: All-Star Julio Teheran (14-13, 2.89) and left-hander Alex Wood (11-11, 2.78). If lefty Mike Minor, only 27, can bounce back from shoulder problems, the outlook is even brighter.
Atlanta also has perhaps the most dominant closer in the game, Craig Kimbrel, who led the NL in saves for the fourth year in a row with 47.
"I like our pitching," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Our rotation is going to be as good as you want."
Even if the pitching comes through, the Braves have slipped way behind Washington in the NL East and could have trouble holding off the up-and-coming Miami Marlins as well.
Yep, times have changed in Atlanta.
Or maybe not.
"The goal is the same for me," Gonzalez insisted. "Our goal is to make the playoffs."
WHAT'S IN A NAME?: The center fielder formerly known as B.J. Upton is hoping a name change — actually, using his given name — will help him bounce back from two horrific seasons. The early results were not promising for Melvin Upton Jr., who missed all of spring training with a foot injury. Eric Young Jr. will hold down the starting job until Upton returns. Even then, Upton may have to share playing time unless he shows significant improvement. As it stands now, he's one of the greatest free-agent busts in baseball history. Since signing a $75-million, five-year contract with the Braves, his two-season totals are .198 with 21 homers, 51 RBIs and a staggering 324 strikeouts.
WHERE'S THE OFFENSE?: Even with Upton, Heyward and Gattis, the Braves scored the second-fewest runs in the majors. The offense was virtually non-existent coming down the stretch, the major reason Atlanta went 7-18 over the final month and wound up 17 games behind Washington after being tied for first at the All-Star break. The homer-or-bust philosophy clearly didn't work, so the Braves are hoping to scrap for runs this season. They'll have to with a lineup likely to include journeymen such as Young and Jonny Gomes, as well as rookie second baseman Jace Peterson. The only major offensive addition was right fielder Nick Markakis, and he's coming off neck surgery.
FREDI'S FUTURE: After firing Wren with a week to go in the disappointing 2014 season, the Braves decided to bring back Gonzalez for another year. He certainly deserved a shot to make up for a late-season collapse that was largely the result of a feeble offense. Let's not forget: During Gonzalez's first three years as manager, Atlanta won an NL East title, made two playoff appearances and missed out on another postseason berth on the final day. But his long-term future looks shaky, even with a franchise that cherishes stability. The Braves are definitely in rebuilding mode, and the manager often takes the fall when the losses begin to pile up.