The 2014 Atlanta Braves Country Caravan stopped in Aiken Monday, where team executives, broadcasters and alumni met with hundreds and hundreds of fans and signed autographs at Academy Sports + Outdoors.


Among those on hand were executive vice president and general manager Frank Wren, former Braves outfielders Marquis Grissom and Brian Jordan, as well as broadcaster Don Sutton – a Hall of Fame pitcher. They’re part of a group representing the team that will travel more than 3,000 miles to meet and greet fans prior to heading south for Spring Training in Orlando, Fla. Wren was very optimistic about the group he’ll bring south in anticipation of the 2014 season.


“We like our club a lot. We were one of the youngest teams in baseball last year and we won the second-most games in baseball, winning 96 games. We feel like we have a young, dynamic club that’s on the rise,” said Wren, who didn’t seem disturbed about a relatively quiet offseason, where the biggest moves have been the loss of veteran Tim Hudson and Brian McCann in free agency. “Starting pitching wise, we have five good young guys. We may be the only team in baseball that starts the season with five guys out of our own system in our rotation. (Kris) Medlen, (Mike) Minor, (Julio) Teheran and (Brandon) Beachy and the likelihood that a young guy like Alex Wood can make that rotation. (We’ve also got) other young guys like David Hale and as we get into the season a little bit, I think Gavin Floyd will join our rotation as soon as he gets stretched out for the second half of the season.”


Wren, who said he doesn’t expect to make any more moves prior to the start of Spring Training, was also high on his options behind home plate. He’s glad to have veteran backup Gerald Laird returning and talked about the depth and versatility newly-acquired Ryan Doumit will provide. And without putting a date on it, Wren sounded like he expected highly-touted prospect Christian Bethancourt to make his way to the big leagues soon. Bethancourt’s a top-100 prospect and Wren raved about his defensive ability.


But he made it clear that Evan Gattis, last season’s rookie phenom, is the player who will catch the majority of games for the Braves. He’ll be the player tasked with taking over for McCann, a seven-time all-star and five-time silver slugger award winner.


“It’s going to give Evan Gattis a chance to play more and show the power that he has. … I think he did a heck of a job and I think we actually saw him really grow up in the playoffs. He had some of the best at-bats in the postseason for us,” Wren said. “He caught and called some of the best games we had called all year. We’re encouraged by what he’s shown us back there.”


While Wren was focused on Atlanta’s present and future, Sutton reflected on the large contingent of former Braves that will be enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame this summer. The group that will achieve baseball immortality in Cooperstown includes pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine as well as their longtime manager Bobby Cox.


“It’s going to be Braves North,” said Sutton, who was elected in 1998. “When you’re called to go to the Hall of Fame (life) changes at that moment. I think for (Maddux and Glavine), they knew it was coming. But your life does change, people view you differently. I’m happy for Bobby too. This is as good of a class as I’ve seen in years. When you look at the managers (including Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa) going in and the players (including Frank Thomas) going in, baseball is well represented.”


Sutton, who’s paid to offer his opinions on Braves broadcasts wasn’t shy sharing his feelings about the Hall of Fame, saying:


• He thought it made the right call about removing a logo from the plaques of Maddux and LaRussa, who enjoyed tremendous success with more than one organization during their careers.


• He had issues with the baseball writers who used their Hall of Fame ballots as political statements, preventing Craig Biggio from being elected, as he was two votes shy.


• He felt bad for players who weren’t elected to the Hall because of suspicion of performance-enhancing drug use without any real evidence, while being quick to add there’s no room in Cooperstown for players who did cheat.


“I feel badly for (Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell), what they did has been tainted. They’ve been hit with fallout,” Sutton said. “I don’t feel badly for any of the other big names. Some of the players not going in have been some of the best con artists we’ve ever know and I think some of them have become very accomplished liars. … But if there was the implication of being tainted with cheating substances, I don’t feel badly for them. If you poll the existing Hall of Famers, I don’t know a single one who wants anybody from that genre in.”


While Sutton was protective of his membership in the Hall, he was equally proud to be a part of the Braves Country Caravan. He said it gave him a chance to meet the fans he has the privilege of broadcasting for during the season. He said it was also special because he could reflect to his own youth, when he would’ve jumped at the chance to meet members of a big league team.


“I love it. I’m a southern kid, I grew up in the South,” Sutton said. “I would have loved to have been able to visit with a team in the South.”


Wren was also appreciative of the opportunity to get up close and personal with Braves fans.


“This is our opportunity in the wintertime to see our fans where they live. All summer long they come to Atlanta to see us,” Wren said. “This gives us a chance to reach out to our fans and get out in the community.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.