Braves camp report: J-Hey and the Uptons tackle post-Chipper world

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It's a post-Chipper world, and the Braves are living in it. Alive, alert and, ahem, chipper.

Small c.

“You know what, we're going to miss Chipper,” manager Fredi Gonzalez says. “I know I am.

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“But as far as leadership, we've got guys who can take care of that. Heyward. Huddy takes care of the pitchers. Kimbrel takes care of the bullpen.”

At 23, remarkably, outfielder Jason Heyward already is entering his fourth full season.

At 24, closer Craig Kimbrel's 88 saves over the past two seasons rank first in the National League. And, last summer, he became the first man ever to strike out more than half of the hitters that he faced (116 of 231).

At 37, Tim Hudson … hey, wait.

In their post-Chipper world, the young, talented and eager Braves project an average opening-day age of 27.81 years, fifth-youngest in the majors. Only the Astros (27.09), Indians (27.62), Marlins (27.63) and Royals (27.79) project younger.

“Huddy tips the scales,” Gonzalez quips.

Next-oldest Brave is second baseman Dan Uggla, 33.

“But he's an old 33,” Hudson chirps, chuckling, “and I'm a young 37.”

Interesting thing about these Braves as they take aim at a better-every-day NL East is this extraordinarily rare mix of youth and postseason stripes (well, putting Hudson and Uggla aside for a moment).

“That's not a combination you see a lot in the big leagues,” Hudson says.

Everyday players Heyward, B.J. Upton (28), Justin Upton (25), first baseman Freddie Freeman (23) and shortstop Andrelton Simmons (24) -- none of them anywhere close to 30 -- all have October experience.

Starters Kris Medlen (28), Mike Minor (25) and Julio Teheran (22) help skew the rotation's demographic toward Family Guy and away from Matlock.

“We're young, but we've got a lot of guys who play the game the right way,” second-year hitting coach Greg Walker says. “They're young, and they're going to bond together.

“A lot of them should be together for a long time. We're excited.”

You can't walk more than 10 feet in this camp without stumbling over a Chipper Jones reference. He's part of the landscape even though he's no longer here. Same as when you rearrange the furniture in your living room; you automatically keep walking around the space where that old coffee table was … even though it's now in the garage.

Catcher Brian McCann, still just 29, and Hudson are the last two remaining Braves who played on Atlanta's most recent NL Eastern Division championship club in 2005.

“It's definitely a transition. I feel like,” McCann says. “There are a lot of new faces around here.

“Everyone's still got one goal, and that's to win the World Series. And we definitely have the talent to do that.”

McCann inherits the face-of-the-franchise tag, though following shoulder surgery he likely won't make it to the field for the first time until at least mid-April.

On his way out the door, Chipper did not leave any written instructions in a desk drawer (or locker) for McCann.

“This clubhouse is so talented,” McCann says. “That's the question a lot of us asked most: Who's going to step up and fill Chipper's shoes?”

Absolutely, McCann feels his share of the responsibility to keep the weeds from growing now that Jones has moved on to the retirement farm.

“I've been a Braves fan my whole life,” McCann says. “I grew up in Atlanta. I'm living in a dream world to call the Atlanta Braves my home for the last eight years.

“You feel it's part of your duties to pass on what was passed on to you.”

Heyward one day will become one of those guys. Maybe this is the year. Maybe it will be sooner rather than later.

So far, he has shouldered the burden of being Atlanta's No. 1 pick in 2007 exceedingly well. Better, at times, than he has handled staying on the field.

Following his first two seasons that were notable for nagging injuries (thumb, oblique), he played in 158 games last season, producing 27 homers, 82 RBI and a .335 on-base percentage.

Nobody knows what Heyward needs to do more than … Heyward.

“Play more,” he says. “This is only my fourth year, and my first year I was on the DL and my second year I was on the DL. Last year, no DL.

“I would like more seasons like that.”

So would the Braves. They have watched him grow right before their eyes, and the feeling is that there is still plenty to come.

“I'm a student of the game, and I want to make adjustments on a timely basis,” Heyward says. “This is a humbling game, whether you need to be humbled or not.”

Play more games, Heyward figures, and his game will continue to grow. And the hope is that his outfield partners will continue to do the same.

B.J. Upton, who signed a five-year, $75 million deal over the winter -- largest in Atlanta history -- already played in a World Series in 2008 and helped change Tampa Bay's franchise.

Justin Upton helped the Diamondbacks to the NL Championship Series in 2007 at 19, then played a big part in leading them to the NL Western Division title in 2011.

“I think we've got an opportunity to do good things on both sides of the ball,” Heyward says. “Save runs. Hit for power. Hit for average. Make teams play defense on us on the base paths. …”

“I know it's a dream come true for those guys,” McCann says of the Upton brothers. “To go and play for the same team in the prime of your career, a team that is talented up and down the roster.

“That's got to be a cool feeling.”

Cool feeling all around here, the Braves knowing they've got enough firepower to erase the awful memory of last season's wild-card playoff game disaster and overcome the memory of what life once was like with Chipper in the middle of the order.

Cool with a big C.

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