With the offseason additions of the Upton brothers and the core of their pitching staff still in place, the Braves appear quite capable of taking another step forward this year.
"Coming into this year, there was a lot of expectations and a lot of optimism," Braves veteran pitcher Tim Hudson said. "I don't think this Spring Training has done anything but heighten that a little bit."
Braves general manager Frank Wren made the first big splash of the Hot Stove season when he signed B.J. Upton to a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract in November. Two months later, he acquired Justin Upton from the D-backs in a trade that ignited the hype and optimism that surrounds his club.
When asked if this was the best team he has had since assuming his current role before the 2008 season, Wren did not hesitate to respond in an affirmative manner.
"I think so; yeah, I think so," Wren said. "Just seeing what their capabilities are, and they all have a track record that you can look at. I think it's by far the most athletic and most balanced. There is speed and power. I think there's a lot of things to like about the team. Now, we've got to go play."
After spending the past couple of months being surrounded by hype, the Braves are now prepared to prove themselves in the tough National League East, which includes the still-dangerous Phillies and the defending champion Nationals, who are widely considered Major League Baseball's most talented club.
"There is always going to be a favorite and somebody who is supposed to be chasing another team," Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. "But that is not anything that is going to make us mad. We know the competition. We know who is good and who is going to be tougher to beat than others. That's just part of playing the game."
Atlanta's most significant offseason losses came via the departures of leadoff hitter Michael Bourn, who struggled during last year's second half, and clubhouse favorite Martin Prado, who was the centerpiece in the trade that brought Justin Upton's tremendous potential to the Braves' lineup.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez's lineup will still possess plenty of left-handed power with the presence of right fielder Jason Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman and catcher Brian McCann, who will miss most of April while recovering from right shoulder surgery.
The most significant difference this year comes in the form of the lineup flexibility Gonzalez gained via the right-handed power the Upton brothers and Chris Johnson can now provide. Johnson, who was also acquired in the trade with the D-backs, will platoon at third base with left-handed power hitter Juan Francisco.
"I think they did a great job in the offseason," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "You always look at your matchups throughout the lineup. They always had a great lineup. But I thought they had a little bit of weakness whether it was coming off the bench or in their lineup. You worried more about the left-handed bats in their lineup than you did the other side. They're a lot more balanced."
Andrelton Simmons will serve as the leadoff hitter in this potent lineup that has the potential to lead the National League in both home runs and strikeouts. Simmons will enter this role with fewer than 200 plate appearances at the big league level. But the dazzling young shortstop showed the ability to thrive under pressure last year and again while helping the Kingdom of the Netherlands reach the semifinals of this year's World Baseball Classic.
"It's pretty exciting," Hudson said. "I think our lineup is going to be really, really good. From top to bottom, there is not a guy you can take a breath on. I'm excited about it. If we just go out there, play the game right and do all of the little things, we're going to be tough to beat."
While the lineup will look different, the rotation will essentially be the same as the one the Braves utilized while leading all NL teams in starters' ERA during the last two months of last season.
Hudson and Paul Maholm are the most experienced members of the rotation, which will also once again include Kris Medlen and Mike Minor, who owned the top two ERAs among NL starters during last year's final three months. The newcomer is top prospect Julio Teheran, who has established himself as a much more complete pitcher since struggling at Triple-A Gwinnett last year.
"A lot of people are considering our bullpen to be our strength," Hudson said. "But I feel like our rotation is a little overlooked and has the potential to be a strong part of our team."
The Braves' bullpen, which has widely been considered the game's best, will once again include dominant closer Craig Kimbrel and reliable setup man Eric O'Flaherty. There is some uncertainty surrounding Jonny Venters, who is dealing with a sprained left elbow. But right-hander Jordan Walden, who recorded 32 saves with the Angels two years ago, could be quite capable of softening the blow of Venters' absence.
"We've got a pretty good team," Gonzalez said. "Now we've got to play the season. We've got to play the 162-game schedule."