Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Most teams across baseball would have saw the addition of one Upton brother as a major upgrade. But the greedy Atlanta Braves went out and got two and they hope that can fuel a deep playoff run in their first season following the end of the Chipper Jones era.
After a 2011 September collapse kept the Braves out of the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, the franchise did little to alter its roster following Fredi Gonzalez's first season as manager. Instead, it leaned heavily on a deep rotation and a returning offense led by Jones, who announced before the season began that 2012 would be his last.
The patience paid off as Atlanta won five more games than it did in 2011, with the 94 victories marking the most for the club since posting 96 in '04. That was good enough to get the Braves into the brand new one-game National League Wild Card round, but it was there that their quest to send Jones out a champion ended at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals.
That 6-3 loss put the final stamp on Jones' career and began an offseason that saw major change for the Braves.
Opting not to re-sign center fielder Michael Bourn, the Braves instead handed out a five-year, $75.25 million to former Tampa Bay Ray B.J. Upton before swinging a seven-player deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks to bring his younger brother Justin into the mix of a new-look outfield.
Chris Johnson also came over from the Diamondbacks in that deal, one that cost the Braves the likes of super fielder Martin Prado and pitcher Randall Delgado in addition to prospects, and he'll platoon with 25-year-old Juan Francisco to replace Jones at third.
Atlanta also cleared the way for some of its young pitching to crack the majors by parting ways with Jair Jurrjens and dealing Tommy Hanson to the Anaheim Angels of Anaheim for reliever Jordan Walden.
Those moves were made with the idea of unseating the reigning NL East champion Washington Nationals in what could be a competitive division.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Braves, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2012 FINISH (94-68) - Second Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Justin Upton (OF), B.J. Upton (OF), Jordan Walden (RHP), Chris Johnson (1B/3B), Gerald Laird (C), Ramiro Pena (INF), Jordan Schafer (OF), David Carpenter (RHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Chipper Jones (OF), Michael Bourn (OF), Martin Prado (OF/INF), Randall Delgado (RHP), Tommy Hanson (RHP), Jair Jurrjens (RHP), Peter Moylan (RHP), David Ross (C), Eric Hinske (1B/OF), Chad Durbin (RHP), Matt Diaz (OF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Andrelton Simmons (SS), Jason Heyward (RF), Justin Upton (LF), Freddie Freeman (1B), B.J. Upton (CF), Brian McCann (C), Dan Uggla (2B), Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson (3B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Tim Hudson (RHP), Kris Medlen (RHP), Mike Minor (LHP), Paul Maholm (LHP) Julio Teheran (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Craig Kimbrel (RHP)
MANAGER: Fredi Gonzalez
ARE TWO UPTONS BETTER THAN ONE?
The Braves are hoping that B.J. and Justin Upton form a brotherly duo more along the lines of Paul and Lloyd Waner as opposed to say, Alex and Walt Kellner.
The older B.J. could be the bigger gamble of the two. The 28-year-old former first-round pick hits for power and can steal a large number of bases, but struggles to hit for average and strikes out a ton. He capped his eight-year career with the Tampa Bay Rays by hitting a personal-best 28 homers and stealing 31 bases, but also set another career high by fanning 169 times while hitting .246 with a .298 on-base percentage.
B.J. does fill a right-handed need that the Braves had as the talented trio of Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman all hit lefty. Atlanta should also be able to cope with the strikeouts as Upton fans just as much as the man he replaces, Bourn, but won't be doing so out of the leadoff spot.
Upton's high strikeout rate and low average have him better suited for hitting lower in the order than Justin, who is a lifetime .278 hitter with 30-homer potential and figures to bat third or fourth.
Despite solid numbers over his six-year career, the Diamondbacks seemingly wanted nothing to do with the left fielder over the past two seasons and last year's dip to just 17 homers and 67 RBI over 150 games was the final straw despite the fact that he played all season with a nagging thumb injury.
Justin Upton, signed through 2015, is also good for about 125-130 strikeouts per season, but does have a career OBP of .357 and is also right-handed.
However, just plugging the two Uptons into the lineup isn't where things end. Justin spent the last few seasons unhappy in Arizona due to constant trade rumors and should be re-energized playing with his older brother, while B.J. should be motivated by the sibling rivalry.
WHO FILLS THE LEADERSHIP VOID LEFT BY CHIPPER?
While the Braves replaced the loss of Jones on the stat sheet, they will have to cope with not having the veteran's presence in the clubhouse, one that should be under high expectations.
That isn't to say that the Braves are an inexperienced team. Gonzalez, who has already had his option for 2014 picked up, does have some veteran's around to keep players in line, chief among them starter Tim Hudson and catcher McCann.
Hudson enters his ninth, and possible final, season with the Braves off another solid effort (16-7, 3.62 ERA), while McCann has been behind the plate for the last eight years in Atlanta and is good for 20 homers and a high average each season. Both are former All-Stars who know how to get things done on the field.
Uggla should also be more comfortable taking on some leadership duties as he enters his third season with the Braves after spending his first five years with the Florida Marlins. However, his main goal in 2013 should be finding the consistency that has escaped him in his last two seasons. Things got so bad for the second baseman at one point a year ago that he found himself on the bench for a few games in September and he saw his string of five straight 30- homer seasons end.
HOW DEEP IS THE ROTATION?
The Atlanta Braves have spent the past few seasons clearing the way for some of its young pitchers and the time is now for the up-and-comers, a group that includes Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran.
Minor claimed a rotation spot in 2012 and a lack of production from Jurrjens and Hanson allowed Medlen to shine and Delgado to increase his trade value.
Medlen became one of the best stories of last season when he was moved into the rotation. The 27-year-old righty went 9-0 with a 0.97 earned run average in 12 starts, with the Braves winning the three he did not get a decision in a as well. Atlanta has high hopes of Medlen continuing to ascend as a starter, so much so that it parted ways with the regressing Hanson and Jurrjens.
Lefty Paul Maholm, acquired at last season's trade deadline from the Chicago Cubs, will be one of the three alternate faces to last season's opening-season rotation, joining Medlen and Teheran, Atlanta's top pitching prospect who has struggled in limited major league action.
The Braves also have an ace in the hole in Brandon Beachy, who was 5-5 with a league-leading 2.00 ERA over 13 starts last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery in June. He should be back by midseason.
X-FACTOR: ANDRELTON SIMMONS
By opting to go with B.J. Upton over Bourn, the Braves left themselves without a leadoff hitter, so slicking-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons will be given the chance to grab the role.
Simmons established himself as an excellent defender after getting taken in the second round of the 2010 draft and made just four errors with a .983 fielding percentage in 44 games at Double-A last season. He matched that effort in 49 games with the Braves, but the big surprise came when he hit .289 with just 21 strikeouts over 166 at-bats while mostly hitting eighth.
That gave the Braves the confidence to bat him first for this upcoming season without a real back up plan and the 23-year-old was able to get some practice in by hitting leadoff for the Netherlands in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
The Braves had an outstanding offseason thanks to the Upton additions, but they are no lock to run away with the NL East crown. Simmons is a question out of the leadoff spot, McCann will miss the start of the season due to offseason shoulder surgery and the back end of the rotation could be a weakness. Still, there is plenty to like about Atlanta, especially its bullpen, which added a flamethrower in Walden to the outstanding trio of closer Craig Kimbrel and setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty. If the Braves can fix Walden's game a bit, they should have an excellent chance of holding onto the leads given to them by the offense. It's a safe bet that Atlanta will be a playoff team again in 2013.
The Sports Network