Braves won't miss a beat with brothers Upton replacing a legend
Walking through the doors of the Braves spring training clubhouse at Disney World in Florida offered an immediate and telling reminder of the team's glorious past and its very bright present and future. Hanging on the first two lockers along the right side of the room are the jerseys for the two men who will be asked to carry on a winning tradition that dates back to when they were just brothers playing the game they loved in their native Virginia.
B.J. and Justin Upton are still brothers, still playing the game they love and, for the first time since those long ago days of their youth, they are on the same team. It's just coincidence, of course, that B.J.'s number 2 and Justin's number 8 add up to that of the departed Chipper Jones' 10, which will be retired by the team on June 28, but there's certainly symbolism there as well. For almost two decades, future Hall of Famer Jones was first one of, and then the last remaining, face of the franchise that dominated the National League East for most of his 18 full seasons, winning 11 division titles and earning two wild cards.
His retirement after last season left a sizable hole in the middle of Atlanta's lineup and in the heart of its organization. "That was one of the things that we were very cognizant of," says Braves general manager Frank Wren. "We needed to create a new identity. That era was over. Now who are we? We didn't have a real good answer."
To find that solution, Wren first noticed that the game was moving toward speed and athleticism -- two traits that Jones, often hobbled by bad knees, was not known for -- and then set out to strengthen his team in both areas. His initial plan was to target B.J., a 28-year-old entering free-agency after eight years with the Rays. Upton had averaged 19 home runs and 36 steals over the past six years and was too expensive for Tampa Bay; Wren signed him with a five-year, $78.5 million contract in late November.
The closest Wren and Upton got to discussing the acquisition of B.J.'s 25-year-old younger brother, an outfielder under contract with the Diamondbacks, was when the elder Upton came to Atlanta for his signing and joked about it over dinner. Wren didn't even keep B.J. up to speed when trade talks picked up that January between Arizona and Atlanta.
Eventually, Wren got his man, dealing away five prospects in a seven-player trade that re-united Justin, a two-time All-Star with three years remaining on his contract, with his big brother.
"Those are two potential 30-30 guys," says catcher Brian McCann. "Those guys aren't usually just floating around out there. This should make for a pretty dynamic outfield."
Despite the fact that those jerseys don't have letters indicating which Upton is which, it won't be hard to tell them apart. For one, B.J. is taller and skinnier than Justin and for another, says fellow outfielder Jason Heyward, their personalities are distinct enough that, "You forget that they're brothers."
On occasion, people have also forgotten how good they are, and can be. B.J. had just a .298 on-base percentage last year and struck out 169 times while Justin slumped from 31 home runs and 88 RBIs in 2011 to 17 and 67 in 2012, partly due to a thumb injury. If the Braves can unlock the full potential of both brothers, they'll have arguably the game's best outfield, pairing with a rising star in Heyward, 23, who jacked his batting average up 42 points and his OPS by more than 100 points from 2011 to '12.
As was often the case during the Jones era, the Braves can again boast one of the most complete pitching staffs in baseball, ranking in the top four in batting average against, ERA and fewest baserunners per nine. Having a full season in the starting rotation from Kris Medlen, who moved out of the bullpen at midseason after being limited by post-Tommy John surgery innings restrictions to become one of the majors' best pitchers down the stretch, will only make them that much better.
"He's not an overpowering pitcher but he can be overpowering, if that makes sense," says staff ace Tim Hudson of the 23-year-old Medlen, like Hudson a small righthander who relies on a changeup and sinkerball. Medlen went 9-0 in 12 starts with a 0.97 ERA after joining the rotation on July 31.
Top prospect Julio Teheran, an early contender for NL Rookie of the Year honors, will also be in the rotation and should be joined at midseason by Brandon Beachy, who is sidelined after recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Beachy should be back in late June, right around the time the Braves are retiring Jones' jersey. Perhaps by then it won't be strange not having Jones' grizzled face around the clubhouse everyday. This spring, though, says manager Fredi Gonzalez, "It's been weird. But, it has to go on. Baseball won't stop."
With the Upton brothers bashing, the Braves winning ways that Jones helped make famous probably won't either.
They may be the symbolic replacements for Chipper Jones but in reality, Justin and B.J. are taking over two outfield spots departed by Michael Bourn, who left as a free agent, and Martin Prado, who went to Arizona in the trade for the younger Upton. Those two ex-Braves combined to hit .287 with 19 home runs, 127 RBIs and 59 stolen bases last year, numbers the Uptons should have little trouble surpassing.
Certainly Jones' loss will be felt the most acutely, but Ross' might be more immediate. With McCann still not ready to play after having offseason shoulder surgery, the Braves will miss Ross, who signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox this offseason after four solid seasons as McCann's backup in which he hit .269/.353/.463 with nine homers per year in an average of just 57 games.
The Braves had the second-best bullpen ERA in baseball last year and will once again have Eric O'Flaherty (1.73 ERA in 64 games) setting up the almost unhittable closer Craig Kimbrel (116 strikeouts in 231 batters faced).
The Braves had just 35 pinch-hits last year, the fewest in the National League. As long as they stay healthy, this won't be an issue but there are few dependable pieces or possible platoon options for Gonzalez should one of his regulars go down.