The countdown to Opening Day 2013 is slowly coming to an end, and the Atlanta Braves' lineup is filled with some new faces. Gone is the face of the franchise, Chipper Jones, along with 2012 All-Star Michael Bourn and 2010 All-Star Martin Prado. That is not only three guys who have been All-Stars, but the top three hitters in the Braves' lineup.
With Chipper, Bourn and Prado moving on, the Braves bring in Justin and B.J. Upton, along with Chris Johnson, who will share a job with Juan Francisco. The Braves will also add promising power-hitting prospect Evan Gattis, though he does not project as a starter.
This article takes a look at the best lineup for the Braves based on the current roster after what we have seen in spring training. Even though Brian McCann may miss all of April, I am projecting him in this lineup.
The weakest spot in the 2013 lineup will be the leadoff spot, just as it was prior to the acquisition of Michael Bourn during the 2011 season. The fact the Braves do not have a true leadoff hitter means Fredi Gonzalez will have to try to make someone fit into that role.
That player is likely Andrelton Simmons.
Simmons could someday be a true leadoff hitter, but the 23-year-old has just 340 at-bats at the Double-A level and above, including only 166 at-bats in the big leagues. Simmons is among the best defenders in all of baseball and has shown better-than-expected production at the plate, but his lack of experience will likely keep him from being able to effectively take pitches and get on base.
The good news with Simmons is that he has done better than expected everywhere in his professional career to this point, and he has some real potential. There is a chance he develops into a solid leadoff hitter by September, but there will be some growing pains. Still, there just isn't a better candidate for the role.
The Braves will miss Martin Prado's intangibles hitting in the two spot in the lineup, but the tools of Jason Heyward should help take some of the sting away.
Heyward has power and speed, and he has also shown the ability to get on base and work counts, as well as come up with clutch hits. The 23-year-old could be on the verge of a major breakout.
In a more ideal situation, I believe Heyward should hit in the middle of the order instead of at the top. But the Braves don't really have anyone else that fits well into this spot.
It's not out of the question for Heyward to hit .300/.360/.500 with 30 homers and 30 steals this season.
Taking Chipper Jones' familiar spot in the lineup will likely be Justin Upton, a 25-year-old with a ceiling at the same high level as Jason Heyward. Sure, he is coming off of a down season last year because of a thumb injury, but the Braves' big winter acquisition had a .289/.369/.529 2011 season with 31 homers.
Upton is a dangerous hitter with power and speed, as well as the ability to hit for a good average. He fits well either here or in the cleanup spot, but having him in the three spot gives Jason Heyward some protection in the lineup.
Upton has been on a tear at the end of spring and has been really hitting the ball with authority on some long home runs. He could be in for a special year.
With Justin Upton projected in the No. 3 spot and Jason Heyward at No. 2, the obvious choice to hit cleanup is Freddie Freeman. The young first baseman looked like he was going to break out last year—he had four homers and 18 RBI last April—before an eye injury in May held down his numbers for the rest of the season.
Freeman, who will be 23 years old this year, has averaged 22 homers and 85 RBI in his first two seasons to go with a .789 OPS. It's possible that he becomes the player he looked like early last year. And with Justin Upton and Jason Heyward in front of him in the lineup, he could potentially hit the 100-RBI mark for the first time in his career.
The disclaimer here is that he is likely to miss the first month of the season as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. But Brian McCann is a middle-of-the-order bat when healthy.
McCann may not be a cleanup hitter, as he was in the past, for this Braves team, but he is still a guy capable of hitting 20 homers and batting in 80 runs despite missing a month of the season.
McCann was an All-Star in his first six full seasons in the league. That streak came to an end last year, in part due to his shoulder injury. As long as he is healthy, he should at least come close to what we have seen in the past, especially when you consider that he is in a contract season.
His replacement in April, Gerald Laird, will not hit this high in the order, but he has some pop to contribute and will not be awful.
While B.J. Upton has the speed to hit leadoff, he doesn't have the on-base skills and he strikes out too often. Still, he is also a guy who hit 51 homers and stole 67 bases over the past two seasons for Tampa Bay in the toughest division in baseball.
Upton is a hard guy to project because many feel that he has never fully reached his potential, in spite of his many accomplishments in Tampa Bay. The thought that the change in scenery, along with playing next to his brother, will help him break out is a real possibility. But even if he doesn't improve on his past numbers, the Braves are still getting a quality ball player and a good hitter in the No. 6 spot.
The past two seasons have been rough on Dan Uggla. One of the top offensive second basemen in the game while he was a Marlin, Uggla has been in a long slump during his two seasons in Atlanta, minus one 69-game stretch at the end of the 2011 season. He has fallen from a feared slugger to an afterthought to many fans.
The good news is that in Uggla's awful 2012 season, he hit 19 homers with 78 RBI and a .732 OPS. Those numbers aren't bad for a No. 7 hitter as long as the rest of the lineup is solid. And there is the potential Uggla regains at least some of his old form—although, at the age of 33, he is unlikely to have a career year.
If Uggla can hit 25 homers with a .800 OPS, numbers that he often posted in Florida, the Braves will have a very good offense this year.
This spot is likely to be split between Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson, though I have to give Francisco a slight edge because his defense is a little better. The combo isn't exactly Chipper Jones, or even Martin Prado, but the two can hit 25-30 homers combined.
Francisco hit nine homers last year in 192 at-bats and has really slimmed down since the end of the 2012 season. The results are a strong performance in both winter ball and spring training, as well as slightly better range defensively.
Johnson hit .281 with 15 homers and a .777 OPS in 136 games for the Astros and Diamondbacks last year and came over as a throw-in to the Justin Upton deal. He's not very good defensively, but he can hit a little. Like Francisco, Johnson has been strong this spring.