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No. 6 Braves: Can Upton brothers' bats hide Atlanta's shortcomings in starting pitching?

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Atlanta Braves.

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2012 record: 94-68
Finish: Second place, NL East
2012 final payroll: $97.3 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $88 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 6th
Hashtags: #uptown #leadership #racistlogos #oldschool #bustedwing #nastyboys #tinystarters #givemetheremote #medlen4cy #blunt

OFFSEASON ACTION

One Upton was plenty. The Atlanta Braves, craving a right-handed bat, athleticism, youth and potential, struck with the first major signing of the offseason by handing B.J. Upton $75 million for five years. The Braves' decision-making is wonderful to behold because it is so blunt, so straightforward, so old-fashioned. They target. They strike. They win.

That's what made the second Upton such a treat: He was a gift not chased but delivered. When the Arizona Diamondbacks started talking deals for Justin Upton, B.J.'s younger brother, the Braves considered themselves a fringe shopper. They had the pieces and motivation, but they weren't intent on this one, not at the cost. So they leaned back, A-OK with their team as it was constituted, and eventually the idea of Justin Upton drifted from their minds.

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Justin and B.J. Upton helped make the Braves big winners in the Hot Stove market. (AP)

His trade to Seattle cemented that – and then Upton rejected it. Suddenly, the Braves wondered: Us? The Texas Rangers weren't willing to offer Cody Buckel, so they were out. The D-backs wanted a veteran to supplement a team that they believe can win now. Martin Prado was not inclined to sign a contract extension at the cost the Braves needed, particularly with a payroll about to explode with arbitration cases. And so it was: Upton and Chris Johnson for Prado and four prospects – shortstop Nick Ahmed, starters Randall Delgado and Zeke Spruill, and third baseman Brandon Drury.

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Atlanta celebrated, as it should've. Between B.J. and Justin – under contract for another three years at $38.5 million – the Braves turned an outfield chasm into a decided strength. Their bats can balance the left-handed thunder of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann, bringing the run-scoring potential to the Braves not seen since the 2003 team that plated more than 900.

The Braves will miss Prado, sure, as much emotionally as in games. There is no natural leader anymore, not that such a thing will derail the Braves' season as much as players will need to gravitate toward someone who can fill that role, because no matter how frivolous it seems, in ballplayers' minds it matters, and a team is not whole until it has someone to fill Prado and Chipper Jones' places.

Reed Johnson certainly is a veteran who can help. Same goes for Gerald Laird. The Braves trolled for free agents with a purpose. Their other deal, dumping Tommy Hanson and his iffy arm for Jordan Walden, could backfire if Hanson's wing doesn't end up on an operating table. Then again, with a little mechanical tweaking, Walden and his 100-mph could be another dominant piece of baseball's best bullpen.

REALITY CHECK

The only thing keeping the Braves from greatness is their starting pitching. Never thought you'd hear that one, huh?

After the trade for Upton, one executive texted: "Their lineup is great. They've got the best bullpen. But don't they need a starter?" And the answer is maybe.

While Kris Medlen has started all of 30 games in the major leagues, the Braves view him as a legitimate top-of-the-rotation guy and have slotted him there. Tim Hudson, arm willing, can ably fill the second slot, and after the All-Star break last season, Mike Minor was brilliant: a 2.16 ERA in 87 1/3 innings, with better than a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

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Kris Medlen is expected to carry the Braves' starting rotation this season. (Getty Images)

It gets a little dicier thereafter. Paul Maholm is Paul Maholm, which is to say average, and Julio Teheran, every bit the prospect of Matt Moore a year ago, is soured in the eyes of scouts after struggling mightily in not just the big leagues but at Triple-A. The Braves are confident in his 97-mph fastball to tide over the rotation's fifth spot until Brandon Beachy's return from Tommy John midsummer. Keep an eye, too, on J.R. Graham, a 23-year-old whom the Braves believe is a Hudson clone: a 6-footer whose sinker makes up for everything he might've been shortchanged in height.

If there isn't enough there, well, the Braves are compelled to go out and get it. Because they understand the importance of this season, when their payroll is eminently reasonable and their young stars are entering their primes. Yes, the Washington Nationals will stand in the way. That's how it's going to be for the next half-decade: these two teams that don't really like each other brawling for supremacy in the National League East.

It's a great matchup between a pair of fun-to-root-for clubs. Were the Braves still broadcast nationally, America would fall in love with the Uptons, Heyward, Freeman, McCann, Andrelton Simmons, Dan Uggla and the nastiest relief core since Cincinnati made nasty cool: Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Walden and others.

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Of all the great races – San Francisco vs. L.A., Cincinnati vs. St. Louis, Texas vs. L.A. vs. Oakland, the entire AL East vs. one another – Washington vs. Atlanta might be the best. Justin Upton made sure of that.

SAVIOR

From Tommy John surgery to the top of the rotation, Kris Medlen made the single greatest return from elbow reconstruction since the procedure's invention. And now the Braves are banking on him recapturing that form. It wasn't just Medlen's 10-1 record or his 1.57 ERA. His peripherals more than backed it: just six home runs in 138 innings, with a 120-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If Medlen can be even 80 percent that good over a full season, he's a threat to win the Cy Young. And with the questions about the rotation as currently constituted, the Braves need that caliber of pitcher if they want to fulfill their immense promise.

HAIKU

Brotherly love in
Full blossom until Uptons
Fight over remote

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