Dynamic new outfield has Braves feeling chipper
Torch being passed from Jones to Upton brothers, Heyward
By Mark Bowman /2/15/2013 6:12 P.M. ET
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When the 2012 season concluded, Braves fans regretfully watched Chipper Jones disappear into the horizon and begin his life in retirement.
Over the course of the four months that followed, they saw their team's future brightened by the creation of an outfield trio that could energize Atlanta and the baseball world for at least the next three seasons.
Braves general manager Frank Wren progressed through the early portion of the offseason determined to pursue free agent B.J. Upton and interested in the D-backs possibly trading Justin Upton. Adding one of these five-tool outfielders alongside budding superstar Jason Heyward seemed quite attractive.
Adding both seemed to be unrealistic. If nothing else, it was just something fun to talk about after the Braves signed B.J. Upton to a franchise-record $75.25 million contract in November. But as it turned out, that was just the start of the fun for Wren, whose patience and aggression proved beneficial when he landed Justin Upton in a seven-player trade with the D-backs on Jan. 24.
Wren entered the offseason looking for two outfielders and exited with three superstar-caliber outfielders who can frustrate opponents with their rare speed-power combination on a nightly basis.
"These guys are up there, talent-wise, with anybody I've ever seen," former Braves outfielder Ron Gant said. " To have all three outfielders who can possibly drive in 100, possibly hit 30 [home runs] and possibly steal 30 [bases], you don't see that very often. I think these three guys can do that. The potential is there."
There is tremendous potential as the Braves enter the 2013 season with three outfielders who are 28-and-under. At the same time, there are questions about whether each of them will live up to the expectations they face.
B.J. Upton, the oldest member of this trio, has hit .242 with a .316 on-base percentage over the course of the past four seasons. The athletic center fielder has also increased his home run total and recorded at least 30 stolen bases each of the past four seasons.
Even while hitting .246 with a .298 on-base percentage for the Rays this past year, B.J. Upton finished two homers shy of notching just the 61st 30-30 season in Major League history.
"The potential is enormous," former Braves first baseman and Tampa resident Fred McGriff said. "It's just a matter of, if [Braves hitting coach] Greg Walker and others can get it out of him. He could easily be a .280-.290 hitter. He shouldn't strike out 160 times or so. It's just a matter of, if he's going to continue to make adjustments. His last month and a half last year, he was awesome. If you get it all out of him, you've got a great ballplayer."
At this point last year, Justin Upton was considered a MVP-caliber player. But the optimism he created while hitting a career-best 31 homers with 21 stolen bases in 2011 was dampened as he battled a thumb injury and hit .280 with 17 home runs this past season. The .785 OPS he compiled during this "career-worst" season ranked as the 15th-best among qualifying National League outfielders.
Heyward began living up to his tremendous expectations as he hit .269 with 27 home runs, an .814 OPS and 21 stolen bases this past season. Still just 23, the Gold Glove right fielder has seemingly positioned himself to rise to the elite class of outfielders.
"You've got three outfielders here, if they put up the years they are capable of, you could possibly have three 30-30 guys in your outfield," Braves first-base coach and former National League MVP Terry Pendleton said. "That would be the first time ever. They've got that type of talent. Just thinking about that is crazy."
There is no precedent that each will hit at least 30 homers and steal 30 bases next year. Only twice have two players from the same team recorded a 30-30 season in the same year -- Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks (1996 Rockies) and Howard Johnson and Darryl Strawberry (1987 Mets).
There have been just four 30-30 seasons in Braves history, and Gant (1990 and '91) is responsible for two. Dale Murphy (1983) and Hank Aaron (1963) notched the others.
"They all three can beat you in a lot of ways," Walker said. "They all three hit with power. All three can run. It's not just with stealing bases. They can also score from first on a double. But at this point, just like everybody else, I'm just sitting back and watching and getting to know them."
Along with their potential offense, the trio has the kind of range that will make opposing pitchers envious of Atlanta's pitching staff.
"Communication is going to be key," Justin Upton said. "Everybody out there can move pretty well and cover some ground. It's going to be interesting. We're going to have to position ourselves well and communicate when we go get the ball. I think it's special to have that kind of athleticism in the outfield. It's more of a luxury than a problem."
From an offensive standpoint, this appears to be the most powerful outfield trio the Braves have possessed since Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones combined for 102 home runs in 2003. But they combined for just 24 stolen bases, with Sheffield accounting for 18 of those.
"Some of those old Braves teams had some unbelievable power in the outfield," Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk said. "But to have three guys with five tools who have the upside ability with many of those five tools, it's pretty impressive. Age and talent, you put it all together, this machine is really primed to be here for a while."