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After rebounding in '12, Braves set for next step

Chipper is retired, but young stars ready to lead talented club in Atlanta
ATLANTA -- Given the strides that were made over the course of the past year, the Braves seemingly have legitimate reason to look toward 2013 with optimism.

After enduring an epic collapse at the end of the 2011 regular season, the Braves rebounded and advanced to the postseason in '12. A loss to the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card game produced disappointment and the desire to take yet another step in the right direction during this upcoming season.

The 2013 season will certainly feel a little different without the presence of the retired Chipper Jones, who had spent each of the previous 18 years as a vital cog in Atlanta's lineup. With Jones gone, more attention will be placed on Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton, who signed a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract in November.

With the signing of Upton, the Braves added more power potential to a lineup that already included Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla.

McCann will miss at least half of April while recovering following right shoulder surgery. But the Braves are hoping the All-Star catcher proves to be his productive self during a significant portion of the year.

This powerful lineup will attempt to provide all the necessary support to what has the makings to be a rock-solid pitching staff. Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm will occupy the first four spots in a starting rotation that will also likely include either Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado.

As he prepares for his third season as Atlanta's manager, Fredi Gonzalez will once again have the luxury to turn at the end of the game toward the dominant Craig Kimbrel, who has established himself as one of the game's finest closers during his first two full Major League seasons.

"He keeps getting better because he wants to get better," Gonzalez said. "He studies, he works. And barring injuries, I see him having a [heck] of a career in front of him."

Over the next few months, the Braves will begin to get a better sense of what 2013 will have in store for them. Here are some of the most pressing questions facing them as they enter the new year.

1. What will the Braves do to make up for the absence of Jones?

Even as Jones moved toward retirement last year, he continued to serve as a feared hitter who opposing pitchers did not want to face in pressure situations. The Braves are certainly going to miss Jones' uncanny ability to come through in the clutch. His incredible knowledge about the art of hitting will also be missed in the clubhouse.

But with Heyward and Martin Prado, the Braves already have a couple of players who are capable of handling Jones' responsibilities on the field. Heyward seemed to grow comfortable in the third spot of the lineup this past summer. As for the versatile Prado, he has spent the past few years showing that he can impress with the glove while playing third base.

2. What should the Braves expect from McCann when he returns?

These past two seasons have been agonizing for McCann, who has not been the same since he returned from an oblique strain too early during the 2011 season. His right shoulder bothered him throughout this past year and led to the most disappointing season of his career. Now the six-time All-Star catcher has plenty of reason to be motivated as he prepares for what could be his final season in Atlanta.

Along with improving his value before hitting the free-agent market, McCann wants to make one more significant splash while playing for his hometown team. Doctors have told him that he should be fine by the time May arrives. Considering he hit 20 homers in 2012 with a bad shoulder, there is no doubt that he could still produce an impressive season after missing a significant portion of April.

3. Was 2012 a sign of things to come for Heyward?

After rebounding in impressive fashion from the 2011 season, Heyward did not allow this past summer's success to deter his dedication. The 23-year-old outfielder has stuck to his regimented offseason conditioning program for a second straight year. In addition, he has grown more comfortable with the mechanical changes that helped him hit a career-high 27 homers in 2012. With his speed-power combo, he has the potential to soon join the 30-30 club.

4. Should Upton be viewed as the same kind of player as Heyward?

There is no doubt that the Braves were intrigued by Upton's capability to also provide the rare combination of speed and power. At the same time, they view him as one of the game's top defensive center fielders. Now that he is away from Tampa Bay's dome and turf, the athletic 28-year-old outfielder should find playing the outfield a little more enjoyable.

5. Was last year a sign that Medlen can be a legitimate ace?

Medlen certainly looked like an ace as he posted a 0.97 ERA and limited opponents to a .191 batting average in the 12 starts he made after transitioning from reliever to starter. In fact, Jones and Hank Aaron were among those who said Medlen reminded them of Greg Maddux. If Med Dog continues to draw those same comparisons to Mad Dog in 2013, it might be a little easier to label him a legit ace.

6. Can Kimbrel continue to dominate like he has during his first two full seasons?

Had Kimbrel duplicated his workload of 2011, when he made 79 appearances and completed 77 innings, there might be some legit concern about his 24-year-old arm. But the All-Star closer made a much more reasonable 63 appearances and worked 62 2/3 innings while recording an astonishing 116 strikeouts this past season. Kimbrel's velocity has remained consistent and he has not experienced any alarming arm discomfort early in his career. With all of this in mind, there is certainly reason to believe he can add to his success in 2013.

7. What should the Braves expect from Andrelton Simmons?

Though he has played just 49 games, Simmons might already be the game's top defensive shortstop. Blessed with range, instincts, soft hands and a strong arm, Simmons immediately made the Braves' pitching staff better when he came to the Majors last year. He also exceeded expectations with the bat and provided the club reason to believe he could continue to improve offensively. But it's the glove that makes Simmons an elite player at one of the elite positions.

8. Will Uggla prove more consistent than he did the past two years?

As Uggla prepares for his third season in Atlanta, he will likely feel a little more comfortable. After proving productive in this past season's first two months, he hit a skid that landed him on the bench in early September. If he can hit somewhere above .250 and at least flirt with 30 home runs again, he will closer resemble the player the Braves expect him to be.

9. Who has the potential to surprise those who do not watch the Braves regularly?

Freeman was named NL Player of the Week twice after the first five weeks of the 2012 season. Freeman then experienced vision problems and had a badly bruised index finger. The ailments seemingly prevented him from living up to the potential he showed during those early weeks. But if the powerful 23-year-old first baseman can stay healthy and focused throughout this season, he has the potential to show why many believe he and Heyward could form one of the game's most feared duos for many years to come.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for

Atlanta Braves, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Brian McCann, Kris Medlen, Martin Prado, Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton