Uptons will be no novelty act

BY foxsports • February 16, 2013

The story is equal parts charming and newsworthy, a spring-training novelty that actually means something: B.J. Upton and Justin Upton are playing together for the first time in a decade, since they were infielders for a fall baseball team called the Tidewater Mets that included David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds.

The Uptons have adjacent lockers in the Atlanta Braves’ spring clubhouse. But we shouldn’t expect them to hold joint news conferences after each workout, to detail any brotherly hijinks and marvel at how fortunate they are to be playing side by side in the same outfield.

“We got that out of the way the other day,” Justin Upton said Friday, after the Braves’ first official full-squad workout. “We were here at camp early. Today was just official for everybody else — you guys (reporters). It was the first day we were on the field with everybody, so that was pretty cool. It was fun to get the first day out of the way.”

Still, to be in the same batting practice group as your brother … That must be a unique experience, right?

“You know what, it was cool the first day,” Justin continued. “But we’re at work now. We’re ready to go. We know we’ve got a long spring ahead of us. We’re pacing ourselves and enjoying it.”

The heartwarming narrative having been acknowledged, it’s onto more practical matters. Such as: Are these Braves going to win the National League East?

For what it’s worth, here in the middle of February, I don’t believe they will. The Washington Nationals are the division’s most complete team. They also appear to have an uncommonly strong resolve following last October’s Game 5 catastrophe against St. Louis. The Nationals talk openly about their desire to win a World Series championship for 70-year-old manager Davey Johnson, who has said he will retire after this season.

Washington has the better season-opening rotation: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez (assuming he’s not suspended through the Biogenesis investigation), Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren vs. Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran.

Atlanta had the second-best bullpen in baseball last year thanks to Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters & Co., but the Nationals have comparable depth after signing closer Rafael Soriano and moving ex-closer Drew Storen into a setup role.

However … 

An MVP season from one of the Uptons — or fellow outfielder Jason Heyward — could override all of that, the way Buster Posey helped the Giants overcome their supposed talent deficit against the Dodgers last year. And make no mistake: All three are capable of it.

“It’s obvious, they’re pretty special,” Braves batting coach Greg Walker said after Friday’s batting practice. “They’ve got some effortless power. They’re all young, but they’ve got a good many at-bats in the big leagues. … For the youth of the group, they’re really accomplished.”

Justin Upton, in fact, finished fourth in the NL MVP vote in 2011 — the year he turned 24 years old. But then came a disappointing 2012 season during which his relationship with the Arizona Diamondbacks deteriorated. After a January blockbuster, he’s learning a new position on a new team and sharing the left-field gap with his brother.

Justin’s regular position, right field, isn’t available because Heyward is established there after putting together perhaps the most consistent full season of his young career. After a disappointing sophomore year in 2011, Heyward revamped his swing with a lower hand position and produced a career-high 27 home runs and 82 RBI.

“He wants to be a great baseball player,” Walker said of Heyward. “He’s got a great work ethic. He’s smart. He’s learning how the league’s trying to get him out, how he wants to attack pitchers. He’s maturing. He’s turned into a man. He really has, his whole game.

“He’s real interested in being a total player. He works at his defense, his baserunning. He talks on the bench about understanding the game. Most 23-year-olds are just trying to survive (in the big leagues). When you see him, and watch him work, you have to remind yourself: He’s only 23 years old, but he’s a very mature 23.”

Justin plans to spend a lot of time in left field this spring, tracking how balls fly off the bats of right- and left-handed hitters. He’s already sought the advice of new teammate Reed Johnson, a 10-year veteran who has experience at all three outfield spots.

We might think moving from right field to left field will be trivial for Justin Upton, but that’s not the case. Over nearly 1,000 regular-season games in professional baseball, he has never played left field. In seven years wearing a Diamondbacks uniform, Upton can remember doing it only once — when he entered the 2009 All-Star Game as a substitute.

“I was talking to him about how most power hitters in this game are right-handed,” Johnson said. “You don’t see too many left-handed power guys. If you do, they’re making tons of money. It’s rare to find a David Ortiz. So you’ve got those right-handed hitters, they’re always hooking balls at you with sidespin or topspin or backspin. You’ve got to be able to read, ‘Did he backspin it? Did he topspin it? Is it going to run away from me toward the line?’ And it’s always coming with a little more heat on it, from those right-handed power guys.

“You’ve got less time to make decisions. Left is probably the toughest out of all three, for me.”

Of course, left fielders around the league won’t exactly have an easy time with the Uptons. Their batting practice session Friday was loud and thoroughly entertaining. Justin swatted a home run that never reached more than 25 feet above the ground. B.J. hit a few moonshots of his own, in addition to a sizzling line drive that clanked against the wall in center. “Nice,” remarked Braves bullpen coach (and BP pitcher extraordinaire) Eddie Perez, admiring from the mound.

Heyward looked every bit as impressive, and perhaps even more so, reminding onlookers that he was the Braves’ spring sensation three years ago. “He’s strong, I’ll tell you that,” Justin Upton said. “He’s an animal. He’s fun to watch.”

Good thing, too, because all eyes will be on the Braves’ outfield for the foreseeable future — waiting for Upton, Upton or Heyward to seize control of the NL East.

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