Addition of Uptons leads to optimism in Atlanta
Manager Gonzalez 'more excited than I've ever been going into Spring Training'
ATLANTA -- Optimism abounds as the dawn of a new baseball season awaits. Some clubs believe they are positioned to follow the lead of the 2012 A's with an unexpected run to the playoffs. Others, like the Braves, have escaped a productive offseason with legitimate hope to end this year with a World Series title.
"I'm really excited about the team," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I'm more excited than I've ever been about a team going to Spring Training."
Much of Gonzalez's excitement obviously centers around the offseason acquisitions of B.J. and Justin Upton. The addition of these two outfielders seemingly fortifies a roster that includes many of the most influential players from last year's 94-win team.
Sure, it will seem odd as the Braves prepare to enter a season without the retired Chipper Jones, who had been a regular in the team's lineup since 1995. There will also be a number of veteran players missing, like David Ross, Martin Prado and Eric Hinske -- three well-liked leaders who left via free agency or trade in the offseason.
Instead of dwelling on the subtractions, the Braves will likely spend more time appreciating the new additions. With the Upton brothers prepared to join Jason Heyward, Atlanta arguably has the game's most dynamic outfield. Each outfielder is a plus defender who will provide power and speed on the offensive side.
With Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters again prepared to serve as closer Craig Kimbrel's setup men, the Braves already had one of the game's best bullpens. This relief corps got even better in December when general manager Frank Wren acquired hard-throwing right-hander Jordan Walden from the Angels. Walden notched 32 saves for the Halos in 2011.
Much of the focus during the early days and weeks of camp will be placed on Brian McCann, who has been encouraged with the progress he's made since undergoing right-shoulder surgery in October. The six-time All-Star catcher remains hopeful he could be ready by Opening Day. But he will certainly be behind schedule during the early portion of Spring Training.
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Home vs. Tigers, Feb. 22, 1:05 p.m. ET
Home vs. Phillies, April 1, 7:10 p.m. ET
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Is there enough depth in the rotation?
Because there has to be one weakness, the rotation might be it. Tim Hudson returns to serve as the veteran anchor and Kris Medlen spent the final two months of the 2012 season looking like an ace. If Mike Minor and Paul Maholm pick up where they left off last year, the rotation should be effective. A lot of attention will be directed toward Julio Teheran, who is the heavy favorite to begin the season as the fifth starter. Teheran's success in the Dominican Winter League gave Atlanta confidence he is ready for this role.
2. How will things play out at third base?
All expectations are that the Braves will begin the season with Juan Francisco and the recently acquired Chris Johnson platooning at third base. If Francisco proves consistent with the glove and puts the ball in play a little more consistently, this is an arrangement the club could keep all season. With these two players, Atlanta would certainly be capable of getting 20-plus home runs from its third basemen.
3. How will the lineup be arranged?
Gonzalez plans to enter the season with his first three hitters being Andrelton Simmons, Heyward and Justin Upton. Heyward's inconsistencies against left-handed pitchers give Upton the nod as the third hitter. If Gonzalez wants the middle of his lineup to have a consistent makeup, he could choose Freddie Freeman as his cleanup hitter. A healthy and productive McCann would be a candidate, but the likelihood that he would be out of the lineup at least one game a week takes away the consistency. Whatever the order, the fourth through seventh hitters -- Freeman, McCann, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla -- will be a formidable group.
94-68, second in the National League East
Projected batting order
1. SS Andrelton Simmons:
.289 BA, .335 OBP, .416 SLG, 3 HR, 19 RBIs in 2012
2. RF Jason Heyward:
.269 BA, .335 OBP, .479 SLG, 27 HR, 82 RBIs, 21 SB in 2012
3. LF Justin Upton:
.280 BA, .355 OBP, .430 SLG, 17 HR, 67 RBIs, 18 SB with D-backs in 2012
4. 1B Freddie Freeman:
.259 BA, .340 OBP, .456 SLG, 23 HR, 94 RBIs in 2012
5. CF B.J. Upton:
.246 BA, .298 OBP, .454 SLG, 28 HR, 78 RBIs, 31 SB with Rays in 2012
6. C Brian McCann:
.230 BA, .300 OBP, .399 SLG, 20 HR, 67 RBIs in 2012
7. 2B Dan Uggla:
.220 BA, .348 OBP, .384 SLG, 19 HR, 78 RBIs in 2012
8. 3B Juan Francisco:
.234 BA, .278 OBP, .432 SLG, 9 HR, 32 RBIs in 2012
1. RHP Tim Hudson, 16-7, 3.62 ERA in 2012
2. RHP Kris Medlen, 10-1, 1.57 ERA in 2012
3. LHP Mike Minor, 11-10, 4.12 ERA in 2012
4. LHP Paul Maholm, 13-11, 3.67 ERA with Cubs and Braves in 2012
5. RHP Julio Teheran, 0-0, 5.68 ERA in 2012
Closer: Craig Kimbrel, 42/45 saves, 1.01 ERA in 2012
LH setup man: Jonny Venters, 3.22 ERA in 2012
LH setup man: Eric O'Flaherty, 1.73 ERA in 2012
RH setup man: Jordan Walden, 3.46 ERA with Angels in 2012
The new guys
LF Justin Upton: The Braves were thrilled to acquire this five-tool outfielder in a seven-player trade with the D-backs. The 25-year-old finished fourth in the balloting for the 2011 NL MVP Award, and then was burdened by a thumb injury in '12. If healthy, he has the tools to be one of the game's elite players.
CF B.J. Upton: The Braves made the 27-year-old center fielder their top priority on the free-agent market and lured him to Atlanta with a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract. He finished three home runs shy of a 30-30 season last year. While playing center field, Upton will be flanked by his brother in left and Heyward in right.
C Gerald Laird: Less than a week after Ross signed with the Red Sox, the Braves replaced him with Laird, a veteran backup catcher who has played in the past two World Series. Laird has become recognized as a respected teammate and valuable clubhouse presence. With McCann coming back from shoulder surgery, Laird could serve as the starter during the season's early weeks.
RHP Walden: If Walden can command his plus fastball on a consistent basis, he has the potential to be a very valuable setup man. His right-handed presence provides some more late-inning versatility for Gonzalez, who has used two left-handers -- Venters and O'Flaherty -- as his primary setup men the past two years.
INF Johnson: Acquired in the same trade that brought Justin Upton to Atlanta, Johnson could fill a valuable role while serving in a platoon with Francisco at third base. If Francisco struggles, an everyday role could be given to Johnson, who combined for 15 homers while playing third base with Houston and Arizona last year.
INF Ramiro Pena: With Paul Janish expected to miss the season's first few weeks while recovering from shoulder surgery, the Braves gained some depth with the signing of Pena, who could serve as a backup at each of the infield positions.
OF Jordan Schafer: Five years after being named Atlanta's top prospect, Schafer returns to the organization with the hope of winning a roster spot as a backup outfielder. His struggles with the Astros last year created some doubt about his future at the big league level.
RHP David Carpenter: The 27-year-old righty posted a 2.93 ERA in 34 appearances during the 2011 season and entered last year's Spring Training as a candidate to serve as Houston's closer. Carpenter's presence provides the Braves some organizational depth in the relief pitching department.
Prospects to watch
RHP Teheran: The 22-year-old endured some growing pains last year and is no longer considered one of the game's elite pitching prospects. But Teheran showed promise in August and then continued to impress in the Dominican Winter League. The Braves are confident he is ready to enter this year as their fifth starter.
C Christian Bethancourt: With a strong possibility that this will be McCann's final season in Atlanta, Bethancourt could be preparing to be the team's starting catcher at this time next year. The strong-armed 21-year-old prospect is one of the game's top defensive catchers at the Minor League level. The Braves are hoping to see Bethancourt make some more progress on the offensive end this year.
RHP J.R. Graham: As Teheran struggled last year, it seemed some scouts and evaluators began considering Graham as the club's top pitching prospect. Graham does not appear to have the significant upside Teheran still possesses. But the 23-year-old right-hander has complemented his respectable right arm with an impressive pitching IQ.
C Evan Gattis: Before the Braves acquired Justin Upton, there seemed to be an outside chance Gattis could gain regular playing time in left field. Because he has hit anywhere he's been the past two years, the 26-year-old Gattis has become an interesting piece. Atlanta will take a long look at him during Spring Training to gain a better sense of his capabilities. With some doubt about Gattis' ability to handle the catcher's role on a daily basis, he will likely see some time in the outfield.
On the rebound
C McCann: Since being cleared to begin light throwing exercises in mid-January, McCann has been encouraged by the strength in his surgically-repaired shoulder. As he enters the final year of his contract, it's in his best interest to make sure the shoulder is completely healed before he returns. McCann's shoulder was a problem throughout the 2012 season.
INF Janish: Acquired from the Reds just after the All-Star break, Janish played an instrumental role to last year's success. While spending two months as Simmons' replacement, Janish showed he has the glove to play on an everyday basis. He could once again serve as a valuable backup this year.
RHP Brandon Beachy: The 26-year-old Indiana native was leading the Majors with a 2.00 ERA when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and needed to undergo Tommy John surgery last summer. The Braves are hoping Beachy could return to Atlanta's rotation in late June. If healthy, he could be a significant midseason addition.
CL Kimbrel: If Team USA meets expectations in the World Baseball Classic, there is a good chance Kimbrel will be away from camp for most of March. Kimbrel is looking forward to the opportunity to represent his country. While it might be tough for him to control his adrenaline, he has said he will be smart while pitching during the early portion of March.
SS Simmons: With Simmons slated to play for the Netherlands in Asia, he will be away from the Braves' spring camp for at least two weeks. While playing in the Classic, he will handle the leadoff role Atlanta will give him at the start of this season.
3B Jones: An iconic figure who became a valuable clubhouse leader over the past few years, Jones will be missed both on and off the field. But there is certainly reason to believe he will stay in touch with many of his former teammates during Spring Training and the regular season.
CF Michael Bourn: Despite the fact he struck out 155 times last year, Bourn was the closest thing the Braves had to a leadoff hitter since Rafael Furcal. He was one of the club's most valuable players during the season's first half. Bourn's second-half struggles and approaching his 30th birthday have influenced the fact that he remains unsigned.
LF Prado: The popular veteran was arguably the most widely respected and beloved members of the clubhouse the past few years. But when it became apparent they were not going to be able to sign Prado beyond this year, the Braves had no problem using him as the centerpiece of the blockbuster trade that brought Justin Upton to Atlanta.
C Ross: The veteran backstop proved quite valuable while spending the past four seasons as a backup catcher and clubhouse leader in Atlanta. There was reason to believe Ross would return. But he could not pass up the two-year, $6.2 million contract the Red Sox provided in November.
1B/OF Hinske: The journeyman veteran produced some valuable pinch-hit at-bats during his three years in Atlanta. But Hinske's bat appeared quite slow as he struggled to find any hint of consistency during the 2012 season. He is projected to be part of the D-backs' bench this year.
RHP Tommy Hanson: Projections about Hanson have certainly changed since he arrived in Atlanta as the game's top pitching prospect in 2009. His struggles this past season led the Braves to consider non-tendering him. But before having to do so, they were fortunate to be able to deal him to the Angels in exchange for Walden.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.