Heyward and the Uptons should be a big hit for Atlanta Braves

Justin and B.J. Upton being interviewed by Buster Olney.
Atlanta Braves fans are expecting great things from Justin and B.J. Upton. (ESPN)

Nearly two months after signing B.J. Upton to the largest free agent contract in Atlanta Braves history, the organization consummated a seven-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks in which Justin UptonB.J.’s little brother, was the centerpiece. The Braves also received Chris Johnson in exchange for Martin Prado and four prospects: Randall DelgadoNick AhmedZeke Spruill and Brandon Dury.

With the multi-talented Upton brothers joining Jason Heyward, who’s been compared to Ken Griffey Jr., the Atlanta Braves boast one of the best outfields in baseball. All three are toolsy ballplayers that blend power with speed. They’re also former first-round draft picks (both Uptons were selected first overall) who still have room to grow.

It will be interesting to see how the Uptons adjust to their new surroundings, but both could be in line for career years. They wore out their welcomes with their previous employers and desperately needed changes of scenery. Freed from the burdens of unfulfilled expectations that destroy so many highly touted prospects, they should benefit from fresh starts. It’s possible the elder Upton struggles to live up to his new five-year, $75 million contract (especially if Michael Bourn outplays him), but his kid brother should be extra motivated to make the D-backs rue the day they gave up on him.

So, how will they fare in 2013? I’m optimistic that Atlanta’s trio of stars will post strong numbers this year, and readily admit they have the potential to exceed my predictions. Bossman Junior owns the longest track record and has been the most consistent, so he was the easiest to project. His little brother’s been an every-other-year player so far, which means he’s due for a big year after slumping through 2012. The J-Hey Kid has less than 500 big league games under his belt and isn’t much older than the typical college graduate, but he’s already one of the better all-around players in baseball.

Justin Upton, LF

At 25, Upton is just coming into his prime and could emerge as the superstar/MVP candidate he’s supposed to be. His 2012 (1.8 bWAR) was equal parts frustrating and disappointing, even though he scored more runs than any National Leaguer not named Ryan Braun. A thumb injury sapped his power, holding his slugging percentage below .400 through late August and causing his ISO to plunge 90 points. It’s worth noting that he looked better at the plate as the season wore on and finished the year on a tear that could be a harbinger of good things to come. Much has been made about his massive home/road splits–.937 OPS at Chase Field, .731 OPS everywhere else — but he’s posted solid numbers (.871 OPS against formidable pitching, I might add) at Turner Field throughout his career. And, oh by the way, he’s just one season removed from a fourth-place MVP finish/31-homer campaign. Expect numbers much closer to, or possibly better than, that year rather than his underwhelming follow-up.

My Projections: 103 runs, 30 home runs, 94 RBI, 22 steals, .291/.370/.516, 4.4 bWAR

B.J. Upton, CF

At this point in Upton’s career, after nearly 1,000 games and more than 4,000 plate appearances, we know what he is: a low-average, high-strikeout player with good pop, great speed and decent defense. His improved power stroke suggests he’s still evolving as a hitter and could crack 30 home runs for the first time in 2013. On the surface, moving out of pitching-friendly Tropicana Field to Turner Field, a more neutral park for hitters, should boost his numbers, but during his time in Tampa, his home/road splits were indistinguishable: .758 OPS at home and .757 away.

My Projections: 84 runs, 26 home runs, 83 RBI, 37 steals, .252/.314/.448, 2.7 bWAR

Jason Heyward, RF

Shrugged off a down 2011 (sophomore slump?) and bounced back strong last year. Compiled his first 20/20 season (there’s more where that came from), won his first Gold Glove and helped lead the Atlanta Braves to 94 wins. The sky’s the limit for Heyward, but at 23, he’s still a few years away from his peak. I don’t see him taking the same kind of leap that Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen made in recent seasons, so I don’t feel comfortable projecting monster numbers from him just yet. Like Griffey, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, he probably won’t reach his superstar MVP-level ceiling until his mid-twenties, but he’s on the right track.

My Projections: 98 runs, 25 home runs, 90 RBI, 22 steals, .274/.356/.473, 5.8 bWAR

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