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Atlanta Braves Spring Training Preview

BRAVES SPRING TRAINING PREVIEW

The Braves are looking ahead, not back. In the process, they hope to match at least some of their success from the 1990s and early 2000s.

Gone is the retired Chipper Jones, part of the Braves record streak of 14 straight division titles. Added are the brothers Upton, Justin and B.J.

The Uptons -- along with other young budding stars like Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman give the Braves a bright future. The present should be too bad, either.

"I'm really excited about the team, more excited than I've ever been about a team going to spring training," manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

"Were we sit today, we like our club a lot," said general manager Frank Wren. "Now we've got to go perform."

The Braves have mostly disappointed their fans recently. They were the victims of a controversial infield fly call in the National League wild-card game against the Cardinals last year and haven't taken a postseason series since 2001.

The Braves, though, won 94 games in 2012 and averaged 90 victories the past four seasons. They did that mostly thanks to their pitching. Now they think they have the hitting as well.

Strikeouts could again be a problem, but the Braves feel that they have a combination of power and speed that few teams can match if their young players continue to improve and Brian McCann can bounce back from a sub-par season after shoulder surgery.

The bullpen, led by flame-throwing closer Craig Kimbrel, is one of the best in baseball and the rotation should get a boost in the second half when Brandon Beachy returns after Tommy John surgery. Even without Beachy, the rotation led by Tim Hudson could be solid if Medlen, 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA as a starter last season, continues to progress and Mike Minor can built off his impressive final month in 2012.

The Braves don't have many decisions to make in spring training. Catching the Nationals in the NL East in 2013 won't be easy, though.

NOTES, QUOTES

-- LHP Mike Minor had a respectable record in this first full season, going 11-10 with a 4.12 ERA. But it is his work in September that really has the Braves excited about what he can do in 2013. Minor, who turned 25 in December, was 4-0 with a 0.87 ERA in five September starts. The key for the 2009 first-round draft choice was trusting in his fastball and going right after hitters. He had 28 strikeouts in 31 innings during September and held opponents to a .129 average.

-- RF Jason Heyward, who had a bounce-back third season in 2012, is expecting to build off that in 2013. He had career bests with 63 extra-base hits, 27 homers, 82 RBI, 93 runs scored and 21 stolen bases while winning his first Gold Glove. But Heyward's batting average was .269 below the .277 he hit as a rookie in 2010. The Braves hope that Heyward, who retooled his swing after hitting .227 in 2011, can get his average up close to .300 this season and think he will thrive playing in an outfield with B.J. and Justin Upton.

-- 3B Chris Johnson played for Pete Dunn, Chipper Jones' godfather, at Stetson University . Now he will take over at least part time for the Braves' retired future Hall of Famer. "Got some shoes to fill," said Johnson, acquired from the Diamondbacks along with OF Justin Upton. "I'm going to do the best I can and try to just make sure that I play Chris Johnson's game and obviously not Chipper Jones' game." Johnson, who could platoon with Juan Francisco, hit .281 with 15 homers and 76 RBI last year for the Astros and Diamondbacks.-- C Gerald Laird, signed as a free agent, spent time at the Braves' early workouts in Atlanta so he could get familiar with some of the pitchers. Laird, who will start the season as a regular if C Brian McCann isn't ready to go following shoulder surgery, is coming off .282 season at the plate for the Tigers. But he threw out just 19 percent of would-be base stealers after catching 40.4 percent to lead the American League while with the Tigers in 2009.

-- RHP J.R. Graham is unlikely to open the season with the Braves, but he could well be called on if the Braves need a fill-in starter during the year. Graham, 23, was named the Braves' 2012 minor league pitcher of the year after going 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA with Class A Advanced Lynchburg and AA Mississippi in his first full season. He was a fourth-round draft choice in 2011 out of Santa Clara University .

BY THE NUMBERS: 1,289 Franchise-record strikeouts for the Braves in 2012 and a number they may rival in 2013.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our goal here is always to get in the playoffs and get deep in the playoffs, and I feel really good about our club." Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez

ROSTER REPORT

PROJECTED ROTATION:

  1. RHP Kris Medlen

  2. RHP Tim Hudson

  3. LHP Mike Minor

  4. LHP Paul Maholm

  5. RHP Julio Teheran

The Braves hope to get a midseason boost with the return of RHP Brandon Beachy, who was leading major league starters with a 2.00 ERA when he had to have Tommy John surgery late last June.

Julio Teheran, whose prospect stock took a dip last season, is projected to fill in at the back of a rotation that still looks solid if not spectacular. Medlen was 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts last year and Hudson had 49 victories over the past three seasons. Minor had a strong second half in 2012 and a dominant September.

PROJECTED BULLPEN:

RHP Craig Kimbrel (closer)

LHP Eric O'FlahertyLHP Jonny Venters

RHP Jordan Walden

RHP Cristhian Martinez

LHP Luis Avilan

RHP Cory Gearrin

RHP David Carpenter

Craig Kimbrel, who put up unprecedented strikeout numbers last year while holding opponents to a .128 average, has staked his claim to be being the best young closer in baseball and the Braves bullpen as a whole may be No. 1 as well in 2013.The Braves feel that they have the seventh and eighth innings covered in addition to the ninth with hard-throwing Jordan Walden, acquired from the Angels, joining Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters. O'Flaherty, one of three lefties in the bullpen, has a 1.31 ERA over the past two seasons.

PROJECTED LINEUP:

  1. SS Andrelton Simmons

  2. RF Jason Heyward

  3. LF Justin Upton

  4. C Brian McCann

  5. CF B.J. Upton

  6. 1B Freddie Freeman

  7. 2B Dan Uggla

  8. 3B Chris Johnson or Juan Francisco

The Braves didn't acquire a leadoff hitter to replace CF Michael Bourn, but they feel the increased power and depth in the lineup more than makes up for that. Dominated by left-handed hitters in the past, manager Fredi Gonzalez can now call on an almost perfect blend of right-handed and left-handed hitter.

Simmons will lead off and the Braves feel that he can handle the role despite having played in just 49 games. At least he won't strike out 155 times, like Bourn in 2012. Freeman will move up to the cleanup spot if McCann, who is coming off surgery on his right shoulder, doesn't bounce back from a down 2012.

TOP ROOKIES:

RHP Julio Teheran is projected to begin the season as the fifth starter. He struggled last season at AAA Gwinnett after dominating for the same team the year before, but bounced back in the Dominican Winter League. He made three starts for the Braves in 2011 and one last year.

LHP Sean Gilmartin and RHP J.R. Graham will likely start the seasons in AAA, but are insurance if Teheran doesn't pitch well. Gilmartin was the Braves' first-round draft pick in 2011 and Graham was recognized as the team's minor league pitcher of the year for 2012.

MEDICAL REPORT:

-- C Brian McCann (right shoulder surgery in October 2012) had a frayed labrum repaired and a cyst removed. He hopes to be ready for opening day, but is projected to miss the first couple of weeks.

-- RHP Brandon Beachy (Tommy John surgery in June 2012) hopes to be cleared to throw off a mound shortly after the start of spring training. He is expected to be ready to return sometime in the middle of the season if all goes well with his rehab.

-- SS Paul Janish (left shoulder surgery in October 2012) will miss part of spring training, and he isn't expected to be ready for the start of the season.