If the Atlanta Braves are going to capitalize on last season’s success, they’ll need two key ingredients in 2013. The first will be finding the offensive numbers to replace retired third baseman Chipper Jones. A clubhouse staple since he arrived on the scene in 1995, his 14 homers and .287 batting average in 2012 were obviously down numbers for the future Hall of Famer. However, for a team that ranked 21st in overall batting last season, any player with an average over .250 is considered a gift.
At one point, Atlanta looked to be relying on Martin Prado to fill that void. He’s now out the door after being sent to Arizona in a seven-player deal that most notably brought Justin Upton to Atlanta. Of anyone on Atlanta’s roster, the former Diamondbacks outfielder will be the guy to replace Jones in the lineup.
Since his first full season in 2008, Upton has batted over .270 with at least 15 home runs. That production equals the offensive numbers Jones was putting up in his final years. Of course, if Upton can replicate his 2011 campaign where he hit over 30 homers while batting .289 and driving in 88 runs batted in (RBIs), Braves fans might start salivating.
Atlanta was certainly hoping to get similar production out of second baseman Dan Uggla when he arrived on the scene from Florida two years ago. After belting 33 homers and batting .287 in 2010, his numbers have continually dropped in Atlanta. Despite an uptick of three more home runs in 2011, his average dropped 54 points to .233 that year. Last season, he didn’t even reach 20 round trippers and his average dropped even more to an abysmal .220. That paints an ugly picture for a guy set to make $13 million each season until 2015.
As Uggla continues to slip, Justin Upton’s brother B.J., acquired via free agency in November, seems to be on the rise. While also possessing an impressive defensive range, he set a career high with 28 home runs last season. No wonder the Braves thought he was the right choice to take over for fellow free agent Michael Bourn.
Atlanta will also need to fill a clubhouse leadership void in addition to the offensive numbers left by Jones. That responsibility falls squarely on Brian McCann. The Braves’ catcher will certainly need to experience a bounce-back year. After hitting at least .265 and making the All-Star game in every full season he’s played, McCann dropped tremendously to a .230 average while also knocking in a career low 67 RBIs.
If McCann maintains his struggles, Atlanta will desperately look for continued growth from youngsters Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman. Heyward, still only 23 years old, particularly shined last year, hitting close to .270 and belting 27 homers while earning his first gold glove in right field.
The second key ingredient for the Braves will be continued pitching prowess from the team’s starters and bullpen. Last year, the squad ranked fourth in earned run average (ERA), tied for third in total wins, and fourth in total saves. Perhaps the most impressive pitching stat is that the Braves have won 23 consecutive games in starts made by Kris Medlen, dating back to 2010. After moving into the rotation last July, Medlen went an eye boggling 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA. Starter Tim Hudson also had a respectable year, ending with 16 wins and a 3.62 ERA. Atlanta, however, will lean largely on Mike Minor, Paul Maholm, and Julio Teheran to shoulder the load on the other end of the rotation. None of the three had nearly the years of Medlen or Hudson, but Minor has shown signs of promise in the past.If the bats come alive this year to fill Jones’ void and the pitching grows a notch stronger, the Braves could be looking at their first National League East title since 2005. But if the season goes awry, the Braves could be starring down an insurmountable lead by Washington and even be surpassed by the Phillies and Mets in the division.