Will Justin Upton return to 30-homer form in Atlanta?
It's easy to presume that the Braves offense will be significantly improved by adding Upton, along with his older brother B.J. in center field. The two siblings could combine to hit 70 home runs and steal 50 bases in each of their next three seasons together.
But will the flashy additions of the Upton brothers make up for the batters that the Braves have lost since last season?
Atlanta will be missing Martin Prado, who went to Arizona in the Upton trade. The Braves won't have Chipper Jones either, following his retirement. Those two were arguably Atlanta's best hitters last season.
Additionally, the Braves won't have Michael Bourn at the top of their batting order. As much as Bourn profiled as the ideal leadoff hitter, however, he hit .274 with a .739 OPS. His .348 on-base percentage (OBP) was the same as Dan Uggla's. Bourn also struck out 155 times, the second-most among Atlanta's everyday lineup.
According to manager Fredi Gonzalez, shortstop Andrelton Simmons will take over in the leadoff spot. While he may not have Bourn's speed, his .335 OBP is similar to Bourn's. More importantly, Simmons only struck out in 12 percent of his at-bats, compared to Bourn punching out 20 percent of the time.
Jason Heyward is penciled into the No. 2 spot, somewhat surprising for a hitter with his power. But his .814 OPS last season was second on the Braves roster, suiting him well for the top of the lineup.
While Heyward may not make as much contact as Prado, he has more extra-base power. With 27 home runs in 2012, he should provide Atlanta with some early leads. He figures to get better pitches to hit with Justin Upton batting behind him.
If Upton bounces back from his disappointing 2012 season, he should be an upgrade over Jones batting third. He'll almost certainly provide more power, capable of hitting 30 home runs or more. Along with Heyward, Upton will also give the lineup more overall speed near the top. That should make up for losing Bourn's stolen-base threat.
Perhaps the biggest question Gonzalez faces is who to bat in the cleanup spot. He projects Brian McCann to hit there, but the Braves catcher will be coming off shoulder surgery and may take a while to regain his power. McCann also grounded into 15 double plays last year, which may be more than Atlanta wants in the middle of the lineup.
A better candidate could be Freddie Freeman, who can also provide left-handed power. His 23 home runs ranked second among Braves hitters in 2012. However, Freeman hit only .259 last season, which probably warrants him batting lower in the lineup. If McCann's shoulder is healthy, he'll hit for a higher average.
B.J. Upton is projected to bat fifth, which should give Atlanta more power and speed than it received from Freeman in this spot last season. Upton hit 28 homers last season, while also stealing 31 bases. Surrounded by more offensive talent than he was with the Tampa Bay Rays, those home run and stolen base totals could easily increase.
The Braves need Upton to improve his batting average and OBP, however. Last year, he hit .246 with a .298 OBP that was almost comically low. He also struck out 169 times, which would have led the Braves last season.
Though Upton could crank plenty of baseballs out of the park, he could also kill plenty of scoring opportunities and rallies if he doesn't put the ball in play and get on base more.
But it's in the lower third of the batting order where the Braves might see more production than last season.
Either McCann or Freeman will likely bat sixth behind B.J. Upton. Either of those players should bat for a higher average and possibly provide more power than Dan Uggla did last year. That could lead to an increase in run production.
Uggla batting seventh is probably where he belongs with his low batting average. Last year, the Braves second baseman batted .220. In 2011, Uggla batted .233. Though he gets on base impressively—his OBP was .348 with 94 walks—Uggla just doesn't hit well enough to warrant batting higher in the lineup.
The fringe benefit of that is Atlanta could have a No. 7 hitter who slugs 25 to 30 home runs. Not many other teams can feature that kind of power in the bottom third of their lineups.
Uggla might suffer, however, from having a lesser hitter bat behind him than he did last season. In 2012, Uggla hit in the middle of the lineup, anywhere from fourth through sixth. That meant having a slugger like Freeman or McCann protecting him.
This season, Juan Francisco or Chris Johnson will hit behind Uggla.
Johnson looks like the favorite to be the starting third baseman, as he hit .281 with a .777 OPS last year. Comparatively, Francisco batted .234 with a .710 OPS. He would figure to play more as a left-handed batter, but Johnson hit better versus right-handed pitching. Francisco ultimately could get the nod for better defense at third base.
Regardless, either player is probably a downgrade over Simmons, who batted eighth when he was in the lineup. Francisco and Johnson could hit for more power but won't generate batting averages or OBPs as high.
Last year, the Braves scored 700 runs, ranking them seventh out of 15 National League teams. They should surpass that total and inch up into the top five this season.
Atlanta should also have a higher run differential than in 2012. The Braves outscored their opponents by 100 runs. Between having a more powerful offense and presumably full seasons from Kris Medlen, Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson, that margin should be larger.
Though Prado was the team's best hitter and Jones was productive when in the lineup, Atlanta will get more power from the Upton brothers and a healthy McCann. Both Uptons should get around the bases faster with their speed, as well.
If everyone in the lineup performs to his capability—and that's always the question going into every baseball season—the Braves should have a deeper, more balanced lineup with two powerful right-handed hitters joining the team.
There are certainly fewer reasons to take a bathroom or food break when Atlanta is up to bat. If you go away, you might miss something exciting—more exciting than you saw last year.
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