LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- What I like, and dislike, about the Braves:
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• Any bullpen that leans on closer Craig Kimbrel is a force. This guy is so underrated, he's one of the few closers who can (and should) be involved in Cy Young conversations. He fanned half of the hitters that he faced last season, 116 of 231. According to Baseball Prospectus, Kimbrel is the first pitcher in major league history to whiff more than half of the batters that he faced in a season among pitchers who worked at least six innings. Add Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters, among others, and there is lots to like about a Braves' pen that ranked second in the NL with a 2.76 ERA in 2012.
• Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and B.J. Upton in the outfield. You've surely heard by now about the Upton brothers joining forces. What will make this a special unit is that these three have a chance to be special both offensively and defensively. All three are plus runners, and Braves pitchers will be thrilled with the ground covered.
• It's no Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz but … with Mike Minor coming into his own last year and top prospect Julio Teheran showing signs of early maturity this spring, Atlanta's rotation will be a strength. A full season of Kris Medlen is an enticing thought, and nobody is more fiercely competitive than veteran Tim Hudson. You can mark him down for 15 wins every summer. Minor produced a 4.12 ERA over an impressive 179 1/3 innings pitched last summer. And Teheran? “Last year, he was a 1½-pitch pitcher,” manager Fredi Gonzalez says. “This spring, he's able to pitch with three and even four at times. It's a different guy that I've seen from last spring training. Teheran, 22, has a wicked two-seamer that bores in on lefties and was tied for first among Grapefruit League pitchers with 18 strikeouts earlier this week.
• Evan Gattis is having a huge spring with the bat and has improved enough behind the plate that the Braves are seriously pondering whether to use him during the first few weeks of the season while Brian McCann (shoulder surgery) works to come back. Gattis, 25, blasted live BP homers earlier this spring against Kimbrell, O'Flaherty and Teheran and has taken that into Grapefruit League play. He has big power and has hit everywhere that he has been.
• Atlanta's next wave of pitching is not far away. In particular, keep an eye on right-hander J.R. Graham, 23, who dominated at Class A Lynchburg (1.02 WHIP in 102 innings pitched) and Double-A Mississippi (1.15 WHIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings over 45 innings) last summer, and lefty Alex Wood, 22, the Braves' second-round pick out of the University of Georgia last summer. At Class A Rome, Wood produced a 1.01 WHIP and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings over 52 innings pitched in 13 starts. “Great kids who are doing it right,” Hudson says. “They're working hard, and they have great stuff.” Wood has not even been in the organization for a full season “but if you told me he was competing for a spot in our rotation, I'd believe you,” Hudson says. He's not, but he will be soon.
• Third base. You knew this one was coming. Juan Francisco? Chris Johnson? A platoon? Atlanta has every reason to contend this season and many reasons to play all the way into the World Series. Failure of someone to step up at third base following Chipper Jones' retirement is one thing that could dismantle that.
• Potential leadership void in Chipper's absence. Yes, Chipper Jones' presence was so imperative to the Braves that his departure could disrupt things in multiple areas. But it isn't only Chipper's absence that could leave a leadership vacuum: Eric Hinske, Martin Prado, David Ross and Tommy Hanson also are not back from last year's team. “A lot of big personalities are gone,” Tim Hudson says. Part of Fredi Gonzalez's charge as manager this year will be to find new leaders.
• Brothers B.J. and Justin Upton have been a huge story this spring and deservedly so. They are All-Stars, highly productive and could help launch the Braves to new heights. The flip side is that this unusual brother dynamic could produce a weird clubhouse vibe if things don't go well. This isn't to say we're expecting that to happen, but at the very least it is something to watch.
• Do the Braves have a true staff ace? Tim Hudson is 37 and no longer is that guy. If we see the Kris Medlen from last year -- 10-1, 1.57 ERA in 50 games, 12 starts -- then this answer is an unequivocal yes. In fact, Medlen is 15-2 with a 2.81 ERA lifetime as a starter (30 starts). But those starts have come over three seasons -- 12 in 2012, 10 in 2010 and 4 in 2009. Good as he is, Medlen needs to prove he can lead a rotation over 30 or more starts in one summer.
• Following shoulder surgery, catcher Brian McCann will be out until at least mid-April, likely late April or early May by the time he finishes an expected minor-league injury rehabilitation assignment.