New-look outfield gives Braves brand-new identity
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Justin Upton never guessed that it would play out this way, that he and his brother, B.J., would be teammates so early in their careers. That's the best part of this family reunion with the Braves, the part Justin calls a "luxury." They talked about it some through the years, but never seriously.
After all, teams tend to lock up their franchise players, and so Justin and B.J. thought that if they were ever going to play together, it might be when both were in the twilight of their careers.
"Yeah, we thought if we were both free agents at the same time, or later," Justin said. "We never thought about it this early, him in his prime, me reaching my prime. It's definitely a luxury."
At the locker next to his brother, B.J. is likewise thrilled, not just to be playing with his brother but to be with the Braves, a franchise with a rich history of iconic players and winning teams, one of those franchises against which others are measured.
"Just putting this uniform was a thrill," B.J. said. "This is a great group of guys, and they've made it easy to get acclimated. They keep it loose in here. I feel like I've been over here forever and am having a lot of fun."
On the other side of the room, there's another part of this story. In three seasons, 23-year-old Jason Heyward has emerged as one of the best players in the game, a Gold Glove outfielder who hit 27 home runs and had an .814 OPS last season.
"I'm looking forward to playing with those guys," Heyward said. "It's going to be a lot of fun."
Heyward will play right, with B.J. in center and Justin in left. Both Uptons are right-handed hitters, which should complement the left-handed-hitting Heyward.
Heyward loved playing the outfield last season with Michael Bourn and Martin Prado, both of whom were good teammates and first-rate people. But he also understands why fans are so excited to have three dynamic young players together and how, a season after Chipper Jones' retirement, the franchise has, as Heyward put it, "kind of pushed the restart button. We lost some good guys, but we haven't lost a step."
When the 2012 season ended, general manager Frank Wren was forced to confront a new kind of problem. He had some holes in his lineup, but almost every team has those. What Wren began wrestling with was something larger, something more complicated. He knew that his decision might affect the franchise for years to come.
"What is the identity of this team going to be?" Wren asked his staff.
There you go. Sounds simple, doesn't it? First, though, why is having an identity a big deal?
"I think it's very important if you're going to be a contender," Wren said. "You have to know who you are. And we were kind of at a spot where we didn't know who we were. We had good young players coming. We had Brian McCann coming off surgery. We're hoping he's going to rebound and be the guy he has always been. We're confident he will be. We've got our young guys, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman and [Andrelton] Simmons. But we really didn't have an identity."
For more than two decades, the Braves were defined by legendary figures, from John Smoltz and Tom Glavine to Greg Maddux and Jones. Jones was the last man standing from a group of players who made 14 consecutive postseason appearances. When Jones retired following the 2012 season, Wren began thinking about how to shape the Braves in the years ahead.
"Our identity -- a lot of our identity -- had been Chipper for a long time," Wren said. "That was something we talked about. As Chipper went from his MVP year in '99 to his retirement, he went through periods [when] he was injured and different things.
"But that other manager and those pitchers knew exactly when he was coming up in that lineup, because he could be dangerous at any time. We had young players that were emerging that were becoming that, but we still needed to re-establish our identity."
Five months later, Wren is a happy man, one of the happiest in all of baseball. In an offseason of large moves, he made a couple of the biggest, a pair of moves he believes will help define the Braves for years to come.
The Braves averaged 91 victories over the last three seasons and made the playoffs twice. They have arguably the game's best bullpen and a first-rate rotation. Now Wren has made the kind of move he hopes will carry the franchise deep into October.
First he signed free-agent outfielder B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75 million contract in late November. And 56 days later, he acquired Justin Upton in a seven-player deal with the D-backs.
Suddenly, the Braves had their identity. There's a cool aspect to having a pair of brothers together. They're close and competitive, and Wren is absolutely convinced they'll make each other better. But the deal was more than having a cool marketing angle.
Suddenly, the Atlanta outfield is one of the most dynamic in baseball. All three are dazzling players, fast players, the kind of players who eventually could become the faces of the franchise.
"I'm excited," Wren said. "I know who we are. That was the big thing. We've kind of been remade. They can all defend. Really, they can do all facets of the game. They can run, throw, field their position. They all have power. It gives us a pretty stable core going forward. We feel we have a chance to be this way for a while."
Of course, the Braves are still dependent on Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Craig Kimbrel, and one of baseball's best pitching staffs. They also need to stay healthy and be resilient in a division that also includes the Nationals, who are again expected to be one of baseball's best teams.
But when teams face the Braves, their game plan will begin with that outfield. Last season the three combined for 72 home runs and 70 stolen bases. They also combined for 442 strikeouts, but their OPS ranged from .752 (B.J. Upton) to .814 (Heyward).
Given their relatively young ages, and given that they could feed off of and push one another, the Braves believe the best is yet to come for all of them.
"We're always talking," Justin Upton said. "We're always picking each other's brain. We've all kind of hit it off. I think if we can all get on the same page and get things going, this could be a very good outfield. I think we'll learn from each other. We're all competitors, but pushing each other isn't really the word to use. I'd say we're going to learn from each other. You feed off each other's energy."
Manager Fredi Gonzalez has played the three together in Spring Training games and grouped them together as much as possible. He believes that a productive relationship is building.
"I think they're having fun together," Gonzalez said. "I think that relationship is already there. ... They're already hanging out away from the field."
According to Wren, the Braves have the same worries as every other team -- staying healthy, coming together as a unit and getting a playoff spot at a time when the difference among the game's top 10 teams is very small.
"We've got young guys who have to continue to develop," Wren said. "They don't have to make huge jumps. They just have to do what they're doing. But we feel good. We like our team."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.