Freeman and Heyward anchor Braves' future

Freeman and Heyward anchor Braves' future

Freeman and Heyward anchor Braves' future
ATLANTA -- Chipper Jones has retired and Brian McCann's potential future in Atlanta will likely be limited to the 2013 season. But as the Braves look toward the future, they are comforted by the fact that Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman could reside in the middle of their lineup for years to come.

"The Twin Towers are going to be mainstays here in Atlanta for a long time to come," Jones said. "Hopefully, I've taught them well. I'll pass the torch on to those guys and they will be great representatives of the Atlanta Braves for a long time."

When Jones made his first Major League start for the Braves on April 26, 1995, he was a wide-eyed 23-year-old rookie with incredible talent and tremendous potential.

Seventeen years later, he will hand the torch to Freeman and Heyward -- a pair of experienced 23-year-old veterans.

Though neither celebrated their 23rd birthday before August, Heyward and Freeman have already combined to play in approximately 750 games and compile three 20-homer seasons at the Major League level.

With their strong 6-foot-5 frames and powerful left-handed swings, Heyward and Freeman have the potential to prove even more intimidating than Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were when they batted side-by-side during their healthiest and most productive years with the Phillies. It should be noted that Utley and Howard had both already celebrated their 26th birthday by the time they were joined together in Philadelphia's lineup.

"We have a dynamic young core," Braves general manager Frank Wren said.

As Wren spends the next couple of weeks and months looking for at least one outfielder and determining who will replace Jones at third base, he certainly has reason to be confident about what Heyward and Freeman could provide in the middle of his lineup again next year.

Before being burdened by ailments, injuries and unavoidable growing pains, Freeman was named the National League's Player of the Week twice within the first five weeks of the season. His early-season success led Jones to suggest that Freeman would be hitting third for the Braves for many years to come.

By the end of June, Heyward led Jones and may others to alter this projection.

After spending the season's first two months getting used to the adjustments he made the previous winter and during Spring Training, Heyward finished the season in impressive fashion. The young right fielder batted .284 with 21 home runs, a .339 on-base percentage and a .506 slugging percentage in his final 108 games.

With a total of 27 home runs and 21 stolen bases, Heyward notched the Braves' first 20/20 season since Andruw Jones in 2000. His defensive contributions were significant enough that Atlanta's third-base coach Brian Snitker vowed he would boycott the voting process if Heyward does not win his first Gold Glove Award this year.

"Jason probably matured as a player more than anyone I've seen in a long time," Wren said.

After hitting .227 with a .708 OPS in 2011, Heyward dedicated himself to an offseason conditioning program and began essentially reconstructing his offseason approach from scratch. His 2010 rookie season was tarnished by a thumb ailment and his second big league season was marred by a sore shoulder.

Coming out of his second big league season, Freeman will not spend this winter making the same kind of drastic changes. But after hitting .259 with 23 home runs and a .796 OPS this past summer, he is looking forward to the opportunity to get healthy.

As he was in the process of earning his second NL Player of the Week Award this year, Freeman began experiencing vision problems that plagued him for approximately a month. When he finally found a suitable solution in early June, his right index finger was injured by a Jose Reyes throw.

This led the young first baseman to miss more time over the following two weeks and deal with some discomfort over the season's final four months.

Burdened by these ailments and unavoidable growing pains, Freeman proved inconsistent through much of the season. He hit just .215 with 10 home runs and a .750 OPS in his final 55 regular season games.

Understanding that he is at an age where his vision could continue to change, Freeman seems to be leaning toward avoiding Lasik surgery for at least a couple more years. As for his finger, he will spend this winter benefiting from rest and the healing power of a few more cortisone shots.

Though Freeman battled some physical ailments this past year, he continued to be strong mentally while dealing with adversity.

One year after grounding into a double play to end a must-win regular season finale against the Phillies, Freeman highlighted this past season by hitting a game-winning walk-off home run that clinched a Wild Card playoff spot for the Braves.

"You've got to find the positives so that you're not killing yourself in the offseason," Freeman said. "You've got to move on and start preparing for next year. Next thing you know, we're all going to be in Florida."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.