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
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
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
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
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
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
”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
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AP freelance writer Guy Curtright contributed to this