|With Chipper Jones retired, the focus will now be on the Braves' outfield. (US Presswire)|
We are now just five days from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, and our core values series is the bridge that will get us there. Tuesday, our attention shifts to the Atlanta Braves, a ballclub that won 94 games last season and has a bit of a different look for the 2013 season -- not that it's for the worse.
For those who haven't been with us for the entirety of the series, check out one of the previous posts in the insert box at left to see what we're doing. As for the rest of us, let's dive in.
Cornerstone player: B.J. Upton
No other Braves player (including only guys who are past their arbitration years) is under contract through 2015, but this winter the Braves inked the elder Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million deal, meaning he's locked up through 2017.
Faces of the franchise: The outfielders
This was a tough decision that would have been an easy one for the past decade-plus. It was Chipper Jones for all of recent memory, but he's now retired and there are myriad choices.
When we think about the Braves, who do we first think about? I think the lights-out back-end of the bullpen led by Craig Kimbrel -- a 24 year old who is the best closer in baseball -- could be an answer. Catcher Brian McCann and/or first baseman Freddie Freeman might work, too.
But I couldn't help but to keep coming back to the entire outfield. First of all, I believe having B.J. and Justin Upton together in the same outfield will be one of the most dominant stories throughout the spring and early 2013 regular season. So even if we don't think of them now, this is where we'll be eventually. Also, right fielder Jason Heyward is coming off a season where he had 30 doubles, six triples, 27 homers, 21 stolen bases and played oustanding defense. He's only 23. It's possible to see all three make the All-Star team this year (though a maximum of two is more plausible) and I'm saying that once the trade for Justin Upton was made, this trio grabbed the torch from Jones as the faces of the franchise.
Faces of the future: The outfielders
This was an absurdly tough choice. Again, we could have chosen the Kimbrel-led bullpen (Jonny Venters is still only 27, Eric O'Flaherty is 28 and new acquisition Jordan Walden is 25). We could have looked at top pitching prospect Julio Teheran or said the future big three in the rotation, which is Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Teheran. We could even add Mike Minor in there and make it a foursome.
Considering Freeman's only 23, he'd make sense to be mentioned here, just as it would make sense to mention 23-year-old shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
But, again, I feel like the Upton brothers paired next to superstar-in-the-making Heyward will be the faces of the Braves five years from now. Seriously, five years from now they still won't even be old. B.J. Upton will be 33, Justin will be 30 and Heyward will still only be 28.
Overall, that's a ton of young talent that's already hit the majors for Atlanta, so there's room for disagreement here. My second choice would have been the trio of Medlen, Beachy and Teheran.
Grading the Braves' core: A-
The only mark down is the farm system (ESPN.com's Keith Law ranks it 20th), but many of the above listed players are still in their early- or mid-20s -- and players in the majors aren't considered for farm system rankings -- so it's not like the Braves are in danger of becoming too old any time soon.
The bottom line is we're looking a team that appears loaded for both the short and long term in several different areas of its roster.
Also remember that the Washington Nationals got the only A+ in this entire series, so the NL East is going to be real fun to watch for years. Both teams making the playoffs -- as they did last season -- should be pretty commonplace and I wouldn't expect to see a postseason with neither for quite a while.
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