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January 29, 2013

Chris Whitfield: New look, but a more solid team

The face of the Atlanta Braves has retired, but the team that finished second in the National League East and played as a wildcard in the playoffs last season will probably be even stronger this year.

As the Braves prepare for the start of spring training and the opening of camp with pitchers and catchers in two weeks, the team has made a flurry of moves as they have sat around the hot stove this winter. General Manager Frank Wren brought in a pair of Uptons, sent off a fan favorite in Martin Prado and let lots of talent walk away on the free agent market.

“We felt like we wanted to do a few things to improve our club,” said Wren, stating the obvious goal of any Major League GM.

He was part of the 2013 Braves Country Caravan that made a stop at Dalton’s Academy Sports and Outdoors on Monday afternoon, and before the autograph session in the store, he and the players spoke with area media.

For Wren, the challenges of this season were obvious long before the 2012 season ended with the wildcard loss to the Cardinals. Chipper Jones’ retirement was going to leave a hole in the lineup that would be hard to fill. A big bat was needed on the roster, and Wren got that when Atlanta signed center fielder B.J. Upton from Tampa Bay in November. That got better recently when Upton’s brother Justin was brought in by the team to play in left and will join Jason Heyward in right.

But, Atlanta had to part with some pieces as well, and those came in the form of Prado and Tommy Hanson. The former was the proven commodity who gave you versatility as he could literally play just about anywhere. He was a good guy in the clubhouse from all accounts and the fans loved him. Justin Upton has a lot of upside, but it could be a gamble. Prado was a given. But in the world of baseball economics, Prado was eligible for arbitration and it was pretty clear his asking price for a long-term contract was going to be pretty high.

“The hard part was Martin,” Wren said. “But it is hard to turn your back on a 25-year-old player who is really coming into his prime.”

Hanson was a casualty of the Atlanta pitching depth, which is a luxury in the game. The Braves let backup catcher David Ross go as well, which might not be the biggest move of the offseason, but it could be the most costly. Even though starting catcher Brian McCann expects to surprise everyone this spring and be ready to go after surgery to repair a torn labrum, it is doubtful the Braves will let him rush back.

“I am not sure the doctors will let him surprise us,” Wren said.

Wren signed Gerald Laird as the backup, but Ross has a higher upside. If McCann takes longer to recover, the Ross move could loom huge.

But the one thing you have to say is the team overall is improved with a lot of ifs. It’s a gamble, and there are plenty of things that could go wrong. However, diversity is at the forefront of these moves. Last year, Atlanta had too many hitters on one side of the plate. Now, they have a lineup that can go back and forth. That might not matter a ton across the stretch of the year, but it means a lot in a short series or even in a one-game playoff.

That means Wren is thinking about the postseason, and he has the money to do even a little more before now and the start of the season. Thinking like that is a crowd-pleaser.

Chris Whitfield is a sports writer with The Daily Citizen. Contact him at chriswhitfield@daltoncitizen.com.

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