Do Braves boast NL’s Best Outfield?

The Atlanta Braves have assembled a young and dynamic outfield in hopes of positioning the club to contend in the National League East for years to come.

Not many teams get the opportunity to bring together a trio of former first-round draft picks, all moving toward the prime years of their respective careers, all under team control for at least three seasons and all patrolling the same outfield together.

The Braves became more athletic, while adding young players with power, speed and defense. General manager Frank Wren worked diligently to bring in the best talent available. His revamped outfield gives Atlanta a new identity just one season after franchise icon Chipper Jones retired.

While they have yet to play a single regular-season game together, brothers B.J. and Justin Upton, along with Jason Heyward, all figure prominently into the future of the team. The 2013 season could be the start of great things in Atlanta.

Jason Heyward announced himself loud and clear to the baseball world with a three-run home run in his first major league plate appearance.

The fast start was tantalizing, but the dedication and hard work that Heyward exhibited to get his career back on track in 2012 has the Braves even more excited about what his future holds.

At the tender age of 20, Heyward finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, while earning All-Star honors in 2010. Unfortunately, a strained ligament in his left thumb slowed him down around mid-season and caused him to miss out on the All-Star experience.

Heyward launched his career with a strong rookie slash line of .277/.393/.456 with 18 home runs, 72 RBI and 83 runs scored in 142 games.

However, his second season followed a script that has been handed to many a rising star. It is known as the “sophomore slump.”

It was certainly not pretty, nor was it indicative of his talent level. Heyward ended 2011 with a batting line of .227/.319/.389 while connecting for just 14 home runs in 128 games.

Those numbers led to some obvious questions.

Can Heyward bounce back? Which Heyward will the Braves see in 2012?

With those questions in the air, Heyward discussed his struggles with Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last spring.

“All of us got here by doing what we know how to do, whether it’s mentally, physically, what have you,” Heyward said. “You want to stay as close to that as possible. Keep having fun, keep trying to get better. I’m 22 years old, and I didn’t get here this quickly by not making adjustments, by not learning on the fly, by not handling pressure situations, by not knowing how fans or media might take things. I’ve done a lot of things the right way, and that’s why I am who I am and part of the reason why I’ve been successful.”

He then responded on the field by putting together a fine junior campaign.

Working to correct bad habits caused by his thumb injury, Heyward set a number of career-highs in 2012. Those included 27 home runs, 82 RBI and 93 runs scored. The expectations were largely met, though the best is likely yet to come.

Scouts and executives have long raved over the well-rounded game that Heyward possesses. Now he roams the outfield with two other men who share similar talents. The glaring difference between the three players is that Heyward is built like a tank, standing 6’5″ and weighing 240 pounds.

Though expert projections may help fans determine the numbers that Heyward is capable of on a yearly basis, he is not going into the season trying to meet some requisite statistics.

In this week’s ESPN The Magazine, Heyward shared his outlook on turning ability into results with Eddie Matz.

“I’ve got a skill set that is rare,” Heyward says. “If I can get enough at-bats, the numbers will come.”

He is not the prototypical second-place hitter, but that appears to be where Heyward will be slotted in the batting order to open the season. He has put up solid numbers while batting second during his career, and Heyward should benefit from the power-packed heart of the order that follows him.

With a budding star already in right field, general manager Frank Wren found himself in search of the correct personnel to address the team’s remaining outfield needs this past winter.

Center fielder Michael Bourn was testing the waters of free agency, while left fielder and all-around everything-man Martin Prado was slated to take Chipper Jones’ place at third base.

At least initially, this left two open slots in the Atlanta outfield.

Given his choice of center fielders on the free agent market, Wren decided to go a different route from the speedy leadoff man. He opted to sign B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract.

While both men have been prone to strikeouts in their careers, Upton, 28, brought a more complete package to the Braves than Bourn, whose primary skills are speed and defense. Another consideration was age. Upton is almost two years younger than Bourn, and both were seeking long-term contracts.

Upton’s career numbers with Tampa Bay have seen a batting average that has trended down from .300 in 2007, fluctuating in the .240s over the past three seasons. At the same time, his home run totals have been rising steadily since 2008.

For comparison’s sake, Upton (.336) and Bourn (.339) have nearly the same career on-base percentages. Bourn strikes out roughly once every 4.5 at-bats, while Upton fans once every 3.5 at-bats. The trade-off for Wren came in the run production department, where Upton has a much higher ceiling than Bourn and can hit in different places in the lineup as well.

Wren believed that he got the most well-rounded center fielder on the market. He discussed the decision in the press conference to introduce Upton to the media last November.

“B.J. is an outstanding defensive player who also adds the power dimension to our offense from the center field position. We have been working to increase the speed and athleticism across our team, and B.J. gives us another young, dynamic player.”

The Grapefruit League schedule has been to Upton’s liking thus far. Through March 24, he was batting .369 and had collected 24 hits in his 21 games played.

Upton talked about his time with the Braves this spring with‘s Richard Justice.

“Just putting this uniform [on] was a thrill,” Upton said. “This is a great group of guys, and they’ve made it easy to get acclimated. They keep it loose in here. I feel like I’ve been over here forever and am having a lot of fun.”

The close of the 2012 season was a sampling of the power that Upton can provide. He belted 12 home runs in his final 30 games, and finished just two homers away from joining the 30-30 club.

Though he may be somewhat of an elder statesman in Atlanta’s outfield, Upton is just entering into what should be the prime portion of his career. Wren and the Braves are hoping that the most expensive free-agent signing in franchise history helps the team cash in during the postseason.

The final piece of this proverbial puzzle was Justin Upton. Atlanta swung a seven-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks to unite the Upton brothers in the same outfield.

He will move from his customary right-field spot over to left, giving the Braves a trio that possesses the kind of range that is the envy of every team in baseball. Atlanta will also reap the benefits of its power and speed in the lineup.

Last season was a down year by Upton’s standards. He was coming off a fourth place finish in the NL MVP voting in 2011, batting .289/.368/.529 with 31 homers, 88 RBI, 105 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.

Unfortunately, he was unable to duplicate those numbers in 2012. Upton struggled while dealing with a lingering thumb injury, which may have been the reason why he collected 30 fewer extra-base hits in 2012 despite playing just nine fewer games than the previous season.

While he did score a career-high 107 runs last year, Upton had just 17 home runs and 67 RBI. His .280 average and .355 on-base percentage were right around his career norms, however.

Atlanta acquired a 25-year-old impact player who is under team control for three seasons. This was a move made specifically to address the absence of longtime No. 3 hitter Chipper Jones.

Wren pulled off the deal with the Diamondback to bring Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and a trio of prospects, knowing his team was starting a new chapter.

The Atlanta GM discussed his thought process with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Mark Bradley.

“You only had to look down in the stands and see the number of No. 10 jerseys to know whose team it was. We knew we were going to be transitioning, and we were looking for that player throughout the winter. And quite frankly, in free agency we didn’t find that young superstar player that you could wrap your arms around and say, ‘This is a key building block for the future.’ That’s what made this trade so intriguing for us, and that’s why we stayed on it for almost two months.”

Manager Fredi Gonzalez told Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated that he believes his club has found the player it needed to fill the void.

“He was the guy we were missing for Chipper Jones,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to miss that presence of the old No. 10 in the lineup, but now we have him.”

The January trade also provided Justin with the unique opportunity to play alongside his older brother.

“This is a special day for my family,” he said during his introductory press conference. “It’s a great opportunity. I’m excited to put this uniform on and play for this organization.”

Gonzalez realizes what his two new outfield additions are capable of, and shared his impressions of managing against the Upton brothers with Lemire.

“I remember those guys being involved in a lot of rallies,” Gonzalez said. “I saw B.J. either hit a double or hit a home run or make a great catch from the outfield to save a rally. With Justin Upton, you felt uncomfortable when he came up to the plate in certain situations.”

It’s worth noting that B.J. and Justin will become the fifth set of brothers to play for the Braves in the same season. Hank and Tommie Aaron did so for parts of seven seasons from 1962-1971. Knuckleballers Phil and Joe Niekro joined forces in 1973-1974. Rick and Mickey Mahler pitched together in 1979, while J.D. and Tim Drew teamed up back in 2004.

Reed Johnson was one half of Atlanta’s July trade deadline deal with the Chicago Cubs last season. His value as a backup outfielder who can play all three spots gives the team some flexibility when constructing the remainder of the reserves.

A 10-year big league veteran, Johnson owns a .311 lifetime batting average against left-handed pitchers. That helped him supplant Matt Diaz as the reserve outfielder who routinely wears out lefties when called upon.

Johnson, 36, batted .290 between the Cubs and Braves a season ago, while putting up excellent numbers as a pinch-hitter. He led the majors with 18 pinch-hits in 2012 and batted .419 off the bench.

Jose Constanza, 29, dealt with a work visa issue that kept him from reporting to camp until March 15. He has gotten into nine games, but has just 12 spring at-bats thus far. He did his offseason in the Dominican Republic for a stint in winter ball.

The lefty-swinging Constanza adds the valuable speed asset off the bench, and would likely serve as Atlanta’s primary pinch-runner. He spent six years in the Cleveland Indians’ system before seeing big league time with Atlanta the last two seasons.

Constanza has batted .313 with 37 steals in 174 games at Triple-A Gwinnett over the past two years, but figures to have earned the opportunity to contribute off the bench again this season.

It was not long ago that Jordan Schafer, 26, was ranked the Braves’ No. 1 prospect by Baseball America. Things could have come off the track completely in 2008, when he was suspended for 50 games due to suspected HGH use, but he bounced back in a big way the following year.

Schafer made the big club out of camp in 2009 and homered in his first big league plate appearance, but a wrist injury and other assorted issues have altered his career path. By the time his rookie season was over, he was batting just .204 and found himself in the minors the next year.

Atlanta eventually traded Schafer to the Houston Astros in 2011 as part of the package that landed Bourn. His time there was not without incident, however. Schafer was arrested last winter and charged with felony possession of marijuana in October of that same year.

Despite that, he was given the opportunity to hit at the top of the order and show the Astros what he could do last season. Schafer stole a career-high 27 bases, but hit just .211 in 106 games.

Atlanta claimed Schafer off waivers from Houston on November 1, 2012. It was an interesting move that brings him back to compete for a reserve role with the Braves.

Schafer has seen his ups and downs, and he discussed them with Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I could’ve handled some stuff better in Houston … I think I’ve grown as a person. I think sometimes I needed to be knocked down a little bit to get back and get my focus straight. This game is humbling. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that I was knocked down.”

This will likely be last call for Schafer in Atlanta, though he could see time in Triple-A as well. While he did benefit from extra playing time because of Constanza’s absence in camp this spring, he batted .228 in 24 games through March 24.

His speed and defense remain assets, and Schafer would have to be placed on waivers if he does not make the club. It’s likely that he will see big league time unless or until Constanza is ready.

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