Upton brothers give Braves a new identity
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.
A smattering of Braves fans let out a collective "oooohh" as Justin Upton deposited a batting-practice pitch well onto the hillside beyond the left-centerfield fence at Disney's Wide World of Sports training facility Wednesday.
"Aahhhh," they gasped from the first-base stands when, two pitches later, he drove one even deeper to center.
"Hey, hey, hey!" shouted coach Terry Pendleton, the victimized BP pitcher, as he turned his attention to the fans. Everyone got a good chuckle at Pendleton's mock disapproval because the Braves would like to see nothing more than Justin and his brother B.J. tearing into opposing pitchers this season.
Atlanta might just have the best brother act in Dixie since the Everlys. They acquired both outfielders during the offseason to bolster an offense that batted .247 and hit 45 fewer homers than the NL East champion Nationals in 2012.
General manager Frank Wren acknowledges that signing free agent B.J. away from Tampa Bay for a franchise-record $75.25 million for five years, then trading with Arizona to acquire Justin was part of the team's final transition away from the era dominated by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and, until this season, Chipper Jones.
"We needed a new identity," Wren said. "Our identity had been tied to Chipper for so long."
If there was any downside for Justin coming east in the January deal to join his brother, it was that he had to change his uniform number to 8. The No. 10, still on some of his cleats, belonged to Jones, and no Braves player is getting that jersey.
Turns out it was no big deal for Upton. "It's time to start over," he said. "New team, new number."
Justin Upton, 25, was the first overall draft pick in 2005. A two-time All-Star with the Diamondbacks, he slipped from hitting .289 with 31 homers, 88 RBIs and an .898 OPS in 2011 to .280, 17 homers, 67 RBIs and a .785 OPS last season, when he was hampered by a thumb injury. He has led NL outfielders in errors three times and has three years and $38.5 million left on his contract.
At 28, B.J. Upton is powerful but a bit leaner, as reflected by his 51 homers and 67 stolen bases the last two seasons. However, the second overall pick in the 2002 draft has not hit higher than .246 since 2008 and struck out a career-high 169 times last season, when his on-base percentage fell to .298.
Although he never seriously considered the potential of reuniting the brothers until January, Wren believes they can help each other deliver on their potential as they enter what should be their prime years.
"They probably know each other better than anyone else," Wren said. "There is a real positive bond between the two. I think they are very competitive and will drive each other. I think they can feed off each other.''
B.J. replaces Michael Bourn in centerfield. With Jason Heyward, a Gold Glover in 2012, locked into rightfield, Justin is shifting from right to left.
"It's a new beginning for them and for us," said Heyward, likely to bat second in what no longer is a lefthanded-dominant lineup. "They're both righthanded hitters who have the potential to be 30-homer hitters.''
Chris Johnson, acquired in the Arizona trade (for four players, including Martin Prado and Randall Delgado) and battling Juan Francisco for the third-base job, said Justin Upton is "pretty scary" because he works so hard to improve.
"I know everybody says he had a 'down' year last year, but he still scored 100 runs," Johnson said. "I think they're going to push each other. I think there will be that little brother-brother competition. I think they're also going to lean on each other when they go through some [struggles]. They know each other better than probably anyone else."
Manager Fredi Gonzalez, who plans to bat both Uptons in the middle of his lineup, sees only positives. "I don't think I'm going to have any problems with them,'' he said, "and if I do, I'll call the big BossMan. He'll take care of it."
"BossMan" is dad Manny Upton, an NCAA Division I basketball referee, who watched B.J. (derived from BossMan Jr.) come out of the same AAU program in Tidewater, Va., that produced David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds and Michael Cuddyer.
Manny and his wife, Yvonne, have made a habit of traveling to see their sons' major-league games. "That's another positive," Wren said. "In professional sports, when you have additional motivation [such as] playing in front of your parents, that's always a good thing. Mom and Dad, instead of splitting time in Tampa and Arizona, can be in one city now, Atlanta. That's a great family dynamic."