Chipper-less Braves expect to go right on winning

That familiar face over at third base is gone.

Time for the Atlanta Braves to go through another changing of

the guard.

Goodbye, Chipper Jones.

Hello, Jason Heyward and the Brothers Upton.

The Braves head into a new era with the same high expectations –

make the playoffs, contend for a championship – even though Jones

won’t be holding down a spot in the middle of the lineup for the

first time in nearly two decades.

”When you don’t have probably the best third baseman ever,

there is a big hole to fill,” said pitcher Tim Hudson, who’ll get

the start on opening day. ”But there is a lot of young talent on

this team. We’ll be good again this year and should be good for a

lot more years.”

Indeed, Atlanta has been through this before.

Many times, in fact, since emerging as one of baseball’s top

franchises in 1991.

There were plenty of fans who wondered how the Braves would ever

replace Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Not to mention

Fred McGriff and Andres Galarraga and Andruw Jones. Come to think

of it, many predicted a drop-off when John Schuerholz (the longtime

general manager) and Bobby Cox (the even-longer manager) gave up

their posts.

Through all the changes, the Braves have demonstrated a

remarkable ability to keep reinventing themselves, which is why

they’ve made the playoffs 16 times and endured only two losing

seasons in a 22-year span. Just because another stalwart has called

it a career, they see no reason to expect anything less.

”Without Chipper, new leadership has to emerge in the

clubhouse, and it will,” said general manager Frank Wren, heading

into his sixth season as Schuerholz’s successor. ”I’m not

concerned about that.”

A franchise long known for pitching is now centered around

baseball’s most promising outfield – the 23-year-old Heyward,

joined by B.J. and Justin Upton.

”The sky’s the limit for us,” Heyward said.

Wren moved boldly to replace Jones’ bat by signing free agent

B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract, then pulling

off a blockbuster seven-player deal with Arizona to land his

younger brother.

The Braves now have a trio of outfielders with power (72 homers

combined in 2012), speed (70 stolen bases) and solid defensive

credentials. Just as noteworthy, B.J. is the oldest of the bunch –

and he’s only 28.

”They certainly made some sexy moves,” said Jones, who stopped

by spring training for a few days as a guest instructor but has no

plans for a comeback. ”When this team is going well, it’s going to

be an exciting team to watch. Certainly, those three guys in the

outfield are as dynamic as anybody else’s threesome in

baseball.”

By acquiring the Upton brothers, the Braves addressed the major

hole in their lineup – the lack of right-handed power. Second

baseman Dan Uggla has been a huge disappointment, while Heyward,

first baseman Freddie Freeman and catcher Brian McCann all hit from

the left side.

Even with the Uptons, there are still some nagging questions:

How will second-year shortstop Andrelton Simmons fare in the

leadoff spot? (Judging by his performance this spring and in the

World Baseball Classic, just fine.) When will McCann, who is still

recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, be ready to go?

(Probably about a month into the season.) Can Uggla turn things

around after batting just .220? (To be determined.) Will they have

to put out high-wind alerts at Turner Field with a lineup that

includes three players – Heyward, Uggla and B.J. Upton – who struck

out more than 150 times last season? (Not a bad idea.)

While the Braves focused on offense during the offseason, the

pitching will, as always, play a major role in determining whether

they can improve on last year’s performance. Atlanta finished four

games behind Washington in the NL East and lost to St. Louis in a

one-game wild card playoff marred by a disputed infield-fly

call.

Led by 16-game winner Hudson and second-half sensation Kris

Medlen, the rotation looks solid if not overly dominant, rounded

out by Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and rookie Julio Teheran, the most

impressive pitcher in spring training but still only 22.

No one will be more closely watched than Medlen, who emerged as

the Braves’ ace after moving into the rotation at the end of July.

He went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts, then got the nod over

Hudson in the playoff game. While no one expects Medlen to keep

putting up those kind of numbers, he must prove he’s more than a

half-season wonder, especially after getting hit hard this

spring.

”Sure, there are people who still question me,” he said.

”It’s no skin off my back. I’m just going to keep doing things the

same way I’ve been doing, just keep playing the same way I’ve been

playing, just being aggressive and confident in my abilities and my

ability to get guys out.”

The bullpen is where the Braves’ arms really shine, led by

dominating closer Craig Kimbrel. Last year, he had one of the

greatest seasons for a reliever in baseball history – 42 saves, a

1.01 ERA, 116 strikeouts in 62 2-3 innings (or, to put it another

way, he fanned more than half of the 231 batters he faced).

With Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and newcomer Jordan Walden

setting things up for Kimbrel, manager Fredi Gonzalez and the

Braves figure to be in an enviable position if they’re leading

after six innings.

No matter what, the Braves go into this season with the same

approach as always.

No Chipper? No problem.

”I feel that this is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been

general manager,” Wren said. ”Now we have to go out and prove

it.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at

www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

AP freelance writer Guy Curtright contributed to this

report.