How do you compare last year's starting lineup to this year's, which will be without Martin Prado, Michael Bourn and Chipper Jones?
-- Jerry A., Gainesville, Ga.
This year's lineup will miss Bourn's speed at the top and the unflappable Jones' propensity to deliver in the clutch. But with the additions of B.J. Upton and Justin Upton, this year's lineup has the ability to be more potent than last year's, which ranked seventh in the National League with 700 runs -- the team's second-lowest total in the 16 seasons played since strike-shortened 1995.
With the departure of Bourn, the Braves did lose the closest thing they had to a leadoff hitter, but he was a prime contributor to their franchise-high strikeout total (1,289). Bourn's 155 strikeouts -- the third-highest individual total in franchise history -- weakened his value at the leadoff spot. He struck out once every 5.31 plate appearances before the All-Star break, and once every 3.83 at-bats after.
Seemingly by default, Andrelton Simmons will assume the leadoff role this year with a resume that includes 182 career plate appearances. Even with some uncertainty surrounding him, there is reason to believe Simmons can't be as effective as Bourn was when he hit .225 with a .335 on-base percentage in the season's second half last year.
Bourn's second-half struggles burdened the Braves, who averaged 4.6 runs per game before the break and 4.0 runs in the 77 games that followed. This just affirms the fact that an effective leadoff hitter brings great value. But it does not change the fact that teams (see the 2012 Reds) can still create suitable output without consistent production at the top of the lineup.
With the two Upton brothers, Atlanta gained potential instant offense in the form of two outfielders who have the potential to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season. Prado and Bourn combined for 23 home runs and 81 stolen bases from Aug. 1, 2011, through the end of last season. The Uptons combined for 62 home runs and 67 stolen bases during this same span.
Substituting piece for piece (B.J. Upton for Bourn) and (Justin Upton for Prado) in the corner-outfield spots, it seems obvious there is potential for great improvement. As mentioned last week, the numbers Justin Upton put up during 2012, supposedly his "worst" season in the big leagues, rival the numbers that Prado produced during his "good" season last year.
Projecting the difference at third base is a little difficult, considering the number of parts. Jones (100 starts), Juan Francisco (42 starts) and Prado (20 starts) combined to hit .292 with 22 home runs and a .827 OPS while playing third last year. That's a pretty respectable output.
While serving in a platoon at third base, Chris Johnson and Francisco might not combine to match the batting average and on-base percentage of last year's trio, but they certainly could supply similar power.
Francisco hit .265 with eight homers and a .792 OPS in 151 at-bats as a third baseman last year. The .296 on-base percentage he produced during this span causes some concern. The Braves sent him to winter ball with instructions to focus on putting the ball in play on a more consistent basis.
Johnson hit .286 with 15 home runs, a .331 on-base percentage and a .462 slugging percentage in 127 games as a third baseman last year. His numbers alone at least resemble those produced by last year's third basemen. And if Francisco struggles, Johnson could find himself with an everyday role by the end of the season.
Could B.J. Upton or Justin Upton possibly lead off this year?
-- David R., Winter Garden, Fla.
Justin Upton would not be a candidate. But if Simmons struggles, the Braves would have to at least think about B.J. Upton, who has hit .249 with a .331 on-base percentage in 167 games at the top of the lineup. Most of those at-bats came during the 2009 season. The veteran outfielder batted .236 with a .328 on-base percentage and six home runs in the 14 games he led off last year.
The more intriguing candidate to me is Jason Heyward, whose speed and plate discipline could prove valuable at the top of the lineup. Atlanta has enough other sources of power to afford taking Heyward's bat out of the middle of the lineup. But unless Heyward shows more consistency against left-handers, I do not believe he would be used as a leadoff hitter on an everyday basis.
Heyward batted .224 with a .280 on-base percentage and a .354 slugging percentage against left-handers last year. But the 23-year-old outfielder seemed to make strides in this department. He batted .192 with a .270 on-base percentage and .308 slugging percentage against southpaws in 2011.
Do the Braves plan to do the same thing with Brandon Beachy that they did with Kris Medlen and use him primarily in the bullpen when he returns?
-- Jonathan B., Christchurch, New Zealand
Medlen's time in the bullpen last season did not necessarily make him the dominant pitcher he once was. He was 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery when the 2012 campaign began. The Braves had said they wanted to limit Medlen's innings last year
With Beachy coming back in the middle of the 2013 season, there will not be a need to limit his innings. It is still too early to project whose rotation spot he might take when he returns in late June. But as they often say in the baseball world, these kinds of things always work themselves out.
Is Julio Teheran a lock for the fifth spot in the rotation? What are the odds Sean Gilmartin or someone else challenges him?
-- Owen H., Charleston, S.C.
Teheran will be better served if he believe he is competing for a rotation spot during Spring Training. Competition will be healthy for him, Gilmartin and even J.R. Graham, who certainly needs a little more time in the Minors. But unless Teheran pitches as poorly as Jair Jurrjens did during camp last year, I think it's safe to say he will begin the year as the fifth starter.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.