With young core, '13 could be just the start for Braves
Group hopes to lean on postseason experience to take next step
ATLANTA -- As he reflected on this season during the flight from Chicago to Atlanta on Sept. 22, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez thought about what had transpired a few hours earlier at Wrigley Field.
Before spraying champagne while celebrating their first division title since 2005, the Braves had beaten the Cubs in yet another game that showcased their youth. Twenty-two-year-old Julio Teheran delivered six strong innings that were backed by the power supplied by a pair of 24-year-old National League Most Valuable Player Award candidates, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons. And in usual fashion, the final three outs were recorded by Craig Kimbrel, who at 25 has already established himself as the game's top closer.
"That's having good scouting, a good farm system and pretty good player development," Gonzalez said. "I don't know how many teams could say they have a core of players that are this young."
As the Braves prepare to participate in the postseason for the third time in the past four years, there is plenty of reason for them to be excited about their current opportunity and those that await them over the next few years.
If Dan Uggla starts at second base during the playoffs, he would be the only position player in Atlanta's lineup who has already celebrated his 30th birthday. The top three positions in the lineup will be filled by Jason Heyward, Freeman and Justin Upton, who stands as the elder statesman of this trio at 26 years old.
The top three pitchers in Atlanta's postseason rotation will be Kris Medlen, 27; Mike Minor, 25; and Teheran. Three of the club's primary relievers -- Luis Avilan, Alex Wood and Jordan Walden -- are like Kimbrel in that they are 25 or younger.
"We're all still learning, but we're doing the job still," Simmons said. "We're only going to get better. We've just got to keep everybody healthy, and we'll be fine."
Despite their youth, the Braves will enter October hoping to benefit from what they learned during their two previous postseason trips. Brian McCann, Heyward and Kimbrel are the only active members of this year's club who participated in the 2010 NL Division Series loss to the Giants.
Minus Chipper Jones and Michael Bourn, the lineup Gonzalez constructs in this year's NLDS will look quite similar to the one that he used in last year's one-game NL Wild Card Game loss to the Cardinals. Two key newcomers are Justin Upton and Chris Johnson. Upton compiled more than 40 plate appearances in the 11 playoff games he played for Arizona before being traded to Atlanta in January.
Through his discussions with NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and other coaches from around the professional sports world, Gonzalez has come to understand why postseason experience is often considered to be so valuable.
"I've spoken to a lot of guys in a lot of different sports," Gonzalez said. "The more you are there, the more you want it."
There will be plenty of incentive for the Braves, who realize this could be McCann's final opportunity to experience playoff baseball in his native Atlanta before hitting the free-agent market this offseason. They will also be motivated to continue showing the resilience that has carried them throughout this season.
When Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters underwent season-ending elbow surgeries a few days apart in the middle of May, there was certainly reason for concern. But without their top two projected setup men, the Braves still managed to lead the Majors in bullpen ERA throughout this season.
Potential doom once again struck when Tim Hudson suffered a season-ending right leg fracture on July 24. At the time, the Braves were in the midst of an 85-game stretch in which they went 43-42. But two days after losing the veteran leader of its starting rotation, Atlanta began a 14-game winning streak that essentially erased any drama surrounding the NL East race.
"It was a group effort," Heyward said. "Somebody stepped in every time. Every time somebody went down, somebody stepped in. There's something to be said about that, because sometimes that never happens."
When Heyward's jaw was fractured by a Jon Niese fastball on Aug. 21, there was not much concern about the possibility of the Braves losing their commanding division lead. But without the dynamic outfielder who had sparked the lineup after moving to the leadoff spot three weeks earlier, there was certainly reason to doubt how dangerous this club might be once the postseason arrived.
Fortunately for the Braves, this is no longer a concern. Heyward returned to the lineup on Sept. 20 and has since provided every indication that he is ready to once again serve as a difference maker. Along with producing encouraging plate appearances, he has continued to play the outfield in aggressive manner, as witnessed with the diving catch he made in shallow center field just a few days after his return in a loss to the Brewers.
"We had the injury bug with a lot of our key guys," Freeman said. "For us to overcome this and get everybody back and healthy going into the playoffs is pretty cool."