ATLANTA — 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.
“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 off-season, 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 622/3 innings (or, to put it another way, he fanned more than half of the 231 batters he faced).
With Eric O’Flaherty 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. Jonny Venters, who appeared to play another big part in the bullpen, is set to see Dr. James Andrews on Tuesday for his ailing elbow.
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.”