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Braves offseason changes start with replacing Jones

The SportsXchange

Lost in the shock of the Atlanta Braves' season ending on the wrong end of the infield fly rule and a barrage of garbage on the field in the wild-card game against the Cardinals was the fact that they left 12 runners on base. That was not unusual this season.

The Atlanta offense didn't put up big numbers for the third straight year, but it did improve over 2011, with the exception of second baseman Dan Uggla and catcher Brian McCann. Uggla, supposed to be the power right-handed bat, hit only 19 home runs after hitting more than 30 in each of the five previous seasons. McCann, who was at one time the cleanup hitter, dropped to seventh in the order at times as he battled right shoulder injuries.

The Braves hope and expect both of them to be better next season. By the last month of the season, hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher had straightened out some things with Uggla, whose hitting improved, saving him from finishing with an average below .200. The assumption with McCann is that the frayed labrum and cyst on the joint in his right shoulder were to blame. Once the inflammation subsides, he will have a dye-contrast MRI to assess the damage. He may need surgery, but there's also a possibility that complete rest will take care of it.

Other than that, however, general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez are excited about the progress made by right fielder Jason Heyward and first baseman Freddie Freeman. Heyward established himself as the No. 3 hitter because he was finally healthy. Freeman's season was more erratic. He was the National League player of the week twice early in the season, but he battled blurry vision -- multiple changes of contact lenses and sports goggles were made -- and dealt with a bruised left index finger and swollen thumb.

Through it all, Martin Prado, the team's most versatile and valuable player, shuttled from left field to all four infield positions as needed, never breaking stride at the plate. He hit in multiple spots, too, though he is a prototypical No. 2 hitter. Wren and Gonzalez would rather not have Prado lead off, but they might have to if center fielder Michael Bourn, the leadoff man the Braves had needed for so many seasons, moves on in free agency.

The rotation and bullpen, about which there were a couple of questions coming out of spring training, ended up being outstanding from beginning to end once young left-hander Mike Minor got over the traditional fifth-inning hump and right-hander Kris Medlen got his opportunity to start.

Thanks to Medlen's early contributions out of the bullpen, left-hander Eric O'Flaherty and right-hander Craig Kimbrel, the eighth- and ninth-inning men, weren't ragged when September rolled around.

But one thing the Braves lost when the season ended can't be replaced: Chipper Jones. The third baseman's retirement tour became a celebration not simply because he was leaving but because he continued to perform. He astonished his teammates -- and himself -- by hitting home runs in his first game off the disabled list, on his 40th birthday and on his bobblehead night -- two of them. He also had a walk-off shot against the Phillies.

Had he done none of those things, however, he would still have contributed with his hitting advice and his control of the clubhouse. Gonzalez had only to mention a potential problem, and Jones took care of it.

As one of his retirement gifts from the team, the Braves will be dismantling Jones's locker and installing it in his new home. It's a good bet the spot where it was in the clubhouse will remain empty for a long time. Someone will have to earn it.

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