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Terence Moore

Uptons give Braves 'potential' to be great team

Uptons give Braves 'potential' to be great team

You have to like what the Atlanta Braves are doing this offseason. Still, this is huge: With Spring Training approaching and just some roster tweaking remaining, the operative word around the Tomahawk chanters and choppers is "potential."

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That and "Upton."

Those two words are synonymous these days for a franchise with the potential -- there's that word again -- to have the best hitting and fielding outfield in the Major Leagues.

Potential? The southern drawl of former University of Georgia basketball coach Hugh Durham just leaped into my head. He used to say, "Potential means you ain't done it yet."

That said, if you're the Braves, and if you're trying to become better than only good for the first time since the mid-1990s, you start by stockpiling all of the "potential" you can. So they acquired 28-year-old B.J. Upton as a free agent last November to play center field. It was for a franchise-record $75 million over five years. Then they worked a deal this week to grab B.J.'s 25-year-old brother, Justin, from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Justin will play left field.

The Uptons will share the Braves' outfield with Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward. Like Justin, Heyward has been an All-Star, and B.J. has the (ahem) "potential" to become one.

Not only that, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons are rising offensive stars for the Braves. Now combine that with the Uptons averaging 20-something home runs and 80-something RBIs per season. Then combine that with the "potential" of Brian McCann and Dan Uggla becoming consistently potent again at the plate.

Suddenly, the Braves have the "potential" to rank among the top hitting teams in baseball. More impressive, with splendid starting pitching and the best bullpen in the Majors, they have the "potential" to become one of the game's best teams.

The Braves also have the "potential" to flop. If they do, it will have much to do with the Martin Prado thing and the strikeout thing.

As for Prado, he was part of the Justin Upton trade, and that was unfortunate for a lot of reasons. He is as versatile as they come. During Prado's seven seasons in the Major Leagues -- all with the Braves -- he played efficiently in left field and at second and third. He was steady at the plate with a .295 lifetime batting average. Plus, Prado stole 17 bases in 21 attempts last season while contributing 10 home runs and 70 RBIs as a wonderful complement to a lineup of sluggers. He also was highly popular with his teammates.

Now Prado is gone. So is Chipper Jones, the Braves' future Hall of Fame third baseman, who retired after last season. Which makes you wonder about the current thought process of general manager Frank Wren and other decision-makers for the Braves.

Said Wren, "We've seen some changes in our organization -- with the retirement of Chipper Jones, and [with Jones] being a star and an icon for us for so long -- that we knew we were seeing a little bit of the changing of the guard. And there was an opportunity this offseason, with some contracts coming of [the books] and Chipper retiring, to retool a bit.

"I think that's why you're seeing us involved in so many big deals and a free-agent signing like this."

Wren mostly was talking about the Uptons. While they both have the "potential" to become offensive terrors like never before this season, they also both have the "potential" to contribute to one of the biggest Achilles' heels for the Braves -- strikeouts.

This is in regards to Braves hitters, not pitchers.

Simply put, Braves hitters strike out a lot. They had four players (Michael Bourn, Freeman, Uggla and Heyward) strike out more than 100 times last season, and only the Washington Nationals and the Pittsburgh Pirates had more (five) in the National League. The Baltimore Orioles led baseball with seven.

Now consider this: B.J. has fanned more than 100 times during each of his six full seasons in the Major Leagues -- and that includes over 160 times during each of the last three years. Justin has struck out more than 100 times during each of his five full seasons.

In addition to Justin, the Braves acquired Chris Johnson in the Prado trade with the D-backs, and Johnson is projected to do much of the heavy lifting at third base in place of Jones.

Johnson struck out 132 times last season.

With both of the Uptons, Johnson, Heyward, Freeman and Uggla in the same lineup, the Braves could challenge the Orioles this year for most players with 100 or more strikeouts.

That's not a good look, especially in the postseason when strikeout pitchers have a tendency to dominate. So if you're the Braves and you're trying to stop a string of losing six consecutive playoff series (and seven out of eight), and if you have a slew of hitters prone to swinging and missing ... I mean, you get the picture.

There is a "potential" for disaster.

The Braves prefer to concentrate on the encouraging "potential" of the Uptons, and that easily could happen.

"You look at it in a positive light that people are holding you to a certain standard, and we should hold ourselves to a standard that's higher than that," said Justin, speaking during a conference call to reporters after the trade. "It could be one of the best outfields in the National League, and it could be one of the best teams in the National League."

Could be?

Call it Justin's way of saying "potential."

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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