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MLB Opening Day 2016: Storylines to watch for the Atlanta Braves

Expectations may be low for the 2015 Atlanta Braves but there are still plenty of reasons to watch.

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MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Opening day is just around the corner for the Atlanta Braves and while expectations are low, there will be a lot of things to keep an eye on with the club this season. While this team clearly isn't a contender at this stage of the game, some of the decisions they make this season will have a decided impact on the team's future going forward. Here are some of the major storylines that we will be watching once the regular season begins.

How will Hector Olivera perform?

Hector Olivera is an interesting player for the Atlanta Braves and a bit of a lightning rod for the fan base. The Braves as an organization have been high on Olivera for some time and the team paid a high price to obtain him from the Dodgers last season.

The Braves acquired him for his bat but where he will play defensively is an equally important story. Olivera appeared in 24 games for the Braves at third base in 2015 and apparently that was enough for the team to decide that a switch to left field was best. Olivera made the switch in winter ball and has played there exclusively this spring.

The results at the plate have been positive so far this spring where he has slashed a line of .400/.404/.480. The Braves need him to produce runs and so far his power numbers haven't translated despite his high average.

After a rough debut in the outfield, Olivera has shown improvement and the coaching staff continues to rave about his work ethic. There are plenty of positive signs here regarding Olivera but still a number of question marks as well.

Infield questions

We know that Erick Aybar will be at shortstop on opening day and Freddie Freeman will be the starter at first base. The rest of the Braves' infield picture is a bit less clear. Jace Peterson saw the bulk of playing time at second base last season and figures to get the opportunity to hold on to that job. However, the addition of Gordon Beckham could suggest a platoon situation given Peterson's .190 average against left-handed pitching last season.

To complicate matters, the Braves have used Peterson more as a utility man this spring as he has seen action across the infield and has even seen some time in the outfield as well. With Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies on their way, the Braves may be forecasting Peterson as a utility player but for now, he figures to play a prominent role at second base.

Adonis Garcia surprised everyone with his bat in 2015 and it looks like Atlanta will give him a shot at third. Garcia's defense left a lot to be desired last season and it remains to be seen if he can sustain his strong offensive numbers. Kelly Johnson is also an option here and a platoon appears likely at least at some point.

Who will be in the outfield?

As we are writing this, the Braves still have some questions to answer in the outfield. A starting lineup of Olivera in left, Ender Inciarte in center and Nick Markakis in right appears to be set with Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Emilio Bonifacio and Jeff Francoeur all competing for bench spots.

At this juncture, Swisher looks like a candidate to be released if the Braves are unable to find a team willing to take on, at least, a portion of his contract. Bourn looks safe with Bonifacio and Francoeur competing for the final spot. Bonifacio is more versatile defensively but Francoeur is a better offensive option at the plate. Fredi Gonzalez has used Francoeur in center field some this spring as the team has searched for a right-handed option to back up Inciarte.

Then there is also Mallex Smith who impressed during the early part of spring before being returned to minor league camp. Smith appears to be ticketed for Atlanta at some point this season, but it is unlikely that Atlanta would bring him up to use him as a bench option. Something will have to give in the outfield to find time for Smith and that is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

What about the rotation?

Julio Teheran and Matt Wisler have performed well this spring and will make up the top half of the Braves rotation in 2016. Veterans Bud Norris and Jhoulys Chacin have been less than spectacular this spring but also appear ticketed for a spot in the rotation to start the season.

An interesting competition has developed for the final spot in the rotation. Mike Foltynewicz was expected to be several weeks behind the other pitchers due to his recovery from the blood clot that ended his 2015 season prematurely. However, he has looked healthy and has performed well in spring. So has John Gant who entered the spring as a long shot but has leapfrogged into the discussion as well. Manny Banuelos appeared at one point to have the inside track but has struggled of late.

It may not really matter who begins in the rotation because the Braves figure to give a number of players an opportunity before next season. Guys like Foltynewicz and Banuelos and Williams Perez provide depth. Tyrell Jenkins and Aaron Blair are safe bets to make their MLB debuts this summer and guys like Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims might not be that far away either.

The Braves rotation is a huge question mark entering the 2016 season, but it is certainly a position to watch given the amount of options they have.

Will Fredi Gonzalez survive the season as the Braves' manager?

This seems like it has been an annual question for the last several years. In fact, some are giving Gonzalez the best odds to be the first manager fired this season. I don't really see that happening given his status with some in the organization but it is a fair question to ask.

The Braves picked up Gonzalez's option for this season last summer before they began their second half roster purge. Will they do the same this season? However, it eventually turns out, expect to hear plenty of rumors in regards to Gonzalez's job status throughout the summer.

Which prospects will rise throughout the organization?

If there is a silver lining to what will likely be a very difficult season for the Atlanta Braves it is that they should field one of the most talented minor league systems in baseball. We have already mentioned guys like Mallex Smith and Sean Newcomb who could climb their way to Atlanta this season but what about guys like Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies? It remains to be seen how fast the Braves will push the talented duo through the system but both could be knocking on the door by the start of the 2017 season.

Atlanta is well positioned for the 2016 MLB Draft and with a lot of veteran players currently on the Major League roster, could add more names to a talented and ever improving system.

What will the team look like at the end of the season?

The Braves haven't been shy on the trade market and it is doubtful that will change in 2016. Every player on the roster at some point or another has seemingly had their names mentioned in various trade rumors. While a player like Freddie Freeman might be a long shot to be dealt, it wouldn't be surprising to hear his name come up particularly once he shows that he is fully recovered from the wrist injury that hampered him last season.

Other veterans like Erick Aybar, Nick Markakis, A.J. Pierzynski and others could help teams in the playoff chase down the stretch. So expect to hear the Braves involved heavily in trade discussions again in 2016 as they continue to look for ways to strengthen the team for the future.

The 2016 season may prove to be another difficult one for long time fans of the Braves but the promise of a bright future remains. These are just some of the storylines worth following now and a number of others could develop.

What will you be watching for once the season begins?

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