Dan Uggla huge key for Braves

I have the Nationals as the team to beat in the National League, but give the Braves a fighter's chance of winning the NL East. No, I don't really know what fighter's chance means either, other than "anything can happen."

I do believe the Braves have the second-best club in the NL heading into the season, as the Reds will find life in the NL Central a little tougher this year without the Astros and improved Cubs to beat up on.

A key to Atlanta beating Washington will be second baseman Dan Uggla. Now 33, Uggla saw his streak of five straight 30-homer seasons end as he dropped from 36 to 19. There were still some positives for his offense -- he led the NL with 94 walks, so despite a .220 average he still posted a respectable .348 OBP.

While the Braves are counting on improved performances from youngsters Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, and Justin Upton playing like he did in 2011, an improved Uggla can further boost an offense that ranked seventh in the NL in runs.

Mark Smith of Capitol Avenue Club has an excellent in-depth look at Uggla's contact skills and outlook for 2013, complete with cool heat maps, writing:

Uggla’s sweet spot is middle-in, which shouldn’t be surprising, and in 2012, it saw a substantial drop in contact rates. This, however, can be explained in two ways. One, Uggla is losing his ability to make contact, or two, it’s no worse than 2008. Unfortunately, the maps don’t go back to 2008, so we remain in the dark a little bit. But seeing the other numbers react in a similar manner indicates he might have done this before, and it is more troubling now that he’s 33.

Two years ago with the Marlins, Uggla created a career-high 115 runs. That total was down to 76 last season. He's certainly capable of creating an additional 15 runs or so -- worth about 1.5 wins. The problem for Atlanta: What if he slides even further? With his subpar defense, Uggla's not of much value if his hitting declines, and the Braves don't have much on the bench behind him.

Will his power return? I suspect the days of Uggla as a 30-homer guy are behind him. What do you think?