March 3, 2013; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves right fielder Justin Upton (8), right fielder Jason Heyward (22) and center fielder B.J. Upton (2) talk prior to the game against the Detroit Tigers at ESPN Disney Wide World of Sports complex, Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Atlanta Braves enter 2013 seeking a return trip to the postseason minus the face of the franchise. After 19 years with the Braves, Chipper Jones took his 468 career HR and 1623 RBI and will wait on his Florida porch for a Cooperstown call in five years. To help replace Chipper’s bat in the lineup the Braves signed free agent B.J. Upton and traded for his brother Justin.
Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren wasted little time locking up B.J. Upton to a $75 million 5 year deal in November. Though he does not hit for a high average, he almost joined the 30-30 club in 2012. B.J. Upton will give the Braves a plus defender in center field and can be counted on to approach his career batting line of .255/.336/.422.
In January Wren pulled off a trade that added B.J.’s little brother to the Braves lineup. A package highlighted by Martin Prado was sent to Arizona in exchange for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson. Justin Upton had a relatively down year in 2012, but he seems to bounce back in odd numbered years. In 2009 and 2011, he averaged 28 HR and 87 RBI.
Johnson had a decent 2012, hitting 15 HR and driving in 76 between Houston and Arizona. He will battle Juan Francisco for the departed Chipper Jones third base spot.
With a number of young starting pitchers ready to contribute, the Braves were able to send Tommy Hanson to the Angels in exchange for reliever Jordan Walden. In three years with the Angels, Walden has a 3.06 ERA and a .225 BAA in 114.2 IP.
The Braves primary challenger in the NL East will be the Washington Nationals while the aging Phillies remain dangerous. The Braves have a deep and consistent lineup. The Uptons along with Jason Heyward give manager Fredi Gonzalez a trio of athletic outfielders outfielders with 20-20 potential. The Braves also have a strong infield consisting of home grown youngsters Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons along with veteran 2B Dan Uggla. While C Brian McCann has been slowed by injuries, he has hit 20 HR in five consecutive seasons.
The Braves pitching is also deep. The rotation is fronted by Tim Hudson and Kris Medlen. Medlen went 9-0 in his final twelve starts and may have been baseball’s best pitcher after the All-Star break. Paul Maholm, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor will fill out the rotation while Brandon Beachy looks to return mid-season. At the back end of the bullpen, the Braves can count on baseball’s best closer Craig Kimbrel to nail down 40 plus saves. Setting up Kimbrel are proven setup men Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters.
The Washington Nationals have been coronated favorites this preseason, but their divisional rival Atlanta will be a worthy challenger all year. The Atlanta Braves have the lineup and pitching depth to be considered a serious postseason threat themselves. There is a strong possibility that these two teams will slug it out for the NL East crown, with the loser securing a wild card berth.