Atlanta Braves preview: What can the Uptons do for you?

Atlanta Braves acquistions: Justin Upton and BJ Upton standing side by side in spring training.
Big question for the Atlanta Braves: Are the Uptons here to play?

With Chipper Jones riding off into the sunset, the Atlanta Braves have to find a way to replace his veteran leadership and the 2012 team-best OPS+. That recipe, coupled with another disappointing playoff loss on a team that won 94 games, kept GM Frank Wren busy all offseason.

November was extremely busy, as the Braves kicked off the month by claiming Jordan Schafer from the Astros. Then free agency led to the departure of several players: C J.C. Boscan, INF Jeff Baker, RHP Miguel Batista, CF Michael Bourn, LF Matt Diaz, RHP Chad Durbin, LF Eric Hinske, 1B Lyle Overbay, RHP Jair Jurrjens, RHP Peter Moylan, and C David Ross. And Ben Sheets elected free agency and will most likely retire.

The most notable acquisitions were free agents C Gerald Laird and CF B.J. Upton. The Atlanta Braves sent SP Tommy Hanson to the Angels to strengthen their bullpen with Jordan Walden. LF Reed Johnson re-upped with the Atlanta Braves to provide some veteran leadership before they sent 3B Martin Prado, RHP Randall Delgado, RHP Zeke Spruill, SS Nick Ahmed, and 3B Brandon Drury to Arizona for LF Justin Upton and 3B Chris Johnson.

Atlanta Braves position players

The Atlanta Braves have, without a doubt, upgraded enough to be considered one of the frontrunners for best lineup in the National League. But, like most lineups, there’s a lot of what-ifs. Do the Atlanta Braves really have three legitimate MVP players in the outfield? Which Upton will struggle? Can Brian McCann come back healthy and produce? Which Dan Uggla will we see this year? Is Andrelton Simmons ready to bat lead-off? Who will step up at third base?

These questions must be answered before this Atlanta Braves team can top the 94 wins it garnered last year. The Braves will have Laird in the fold until McCann comes back from shoulder surgery. The defense will be extremely tight, with potential gold gloves at shortstop, first base and all three outfield positions. That’s sure to make the starting pitching a lot happier, and it’s definitely an upgrade over last year’s defense.

Atlanta Braves pitching

The Atlanta Braves took a risk when they traded both Hanson and Delgado, 2/5ths of a rotation, but it shows they have outstanding depth at pitching. They have complete confidence in Kris Medlen. Braves officials know that he won’t repeat last year’s September but have complete faith he’ll pitch around a 3.50 ERA. Veteran Tim Hudson will again anchor the rotation and provide veteran leadership to projected fifth starter Julio Teheran. Teheran, the Atlanta Braves number-one prospect, will finally get his shot to showcase his talents. Teheran has a projected high ceiling from scouts and has had a great spring so far. He sealed his spot with five no-hit innings against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Mike Minor hopes to repeat his second half success and take another step towards his projected ceiling of a legit number-two starter. Minor has started to show others why many considered him the next Tom Glavine out of the Braves system. A lefty with a plus curveball, the Atlanta Braves are riding high on him. Last year’s midseason acquisition, Paul Maholm, will round out the rotation with another veteran presence.

The bullpen ranks first in the league, if not the majors. With Craig Kimbrel closing games, they add Walden to the mix with Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. The Atlanta Braves bullpen is in great shape, and possibly their best asset.

Atlanta Braves projected lineup

  1. Andrelton Simmons
  2. Jason Heyward
  3. Justin Upton
  4. Freddie Freeman
  5. B.J. Upton
  6. Dan Uggla
  7. Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson
  8. Gerald Laird

Atlanta Braves prospect watch

With the Atlanta Braves promoting Teheran to the majors, that gives the chance for someone else to become the top prospect in the farm system. If Teheran faulters or there is an injury in the rotation, look for J.R. Graham (#2 prospect) to make a jump to the majors. Graham took a big jump in 2012 with 12-2 record and a 2.80 ERA. If Christian Bethancourt continues to progress, look for him to take over the catching duties in 2014. McCann will become expendable then, and I would monitor the catching situation throughout the year. If McCann doesn’t return to form and Laird is so/so, look for the Braves to bring up Bethancourt or Evan Gattis. Gattis could catch but in an ideal world, he better serves as an outfielder. Gattis has tremendous power, and if he was in another organization, he would be starting this year. Look for Gattis to win a bench spot out of spring training and give the outfield breaks from time to time.

Atlanta Braves projection

I look for the Braves to win the NL East if the stars align, and by stars I mean the Uptons produce, McCann bounces back, Medlen and Teheran produce, and the injury bug stays away. Worst-case scenario is the Atlanta Braves finish third behind the Phillies and the Nationals, the Uptons can’t produce or perhaps they don’t get along as planned, and the bullpen suffers setback.

Most likely scenario is a locked spot at the wild card again … but will the Uptons make that happen?

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