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2013 ATLANTA BRAVES PREVIEW: Can Heyward take the next step?

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports / Henry County native Jason Heyward began to flash the immense potential expected of him last season when he hit 27 home runs, stole 21 bases and won a Gold Glove award.

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports / Henry County native Jason Heyward began to flash the immense potential expected of him last season when he hit 27 home runs, stole 21 bases and won a Gold Glove award.

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports / The Braves acquired brothers Justin (left) and B.J. Upton through a trade and free agency this offseason.

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Infographic by Brian Paglia

Most baseball experts consider this a potentially good year for the Atlanta Braves, as they head into Monday’s season opener at Turner Field against the Philadelphia Phillies.

It appears the Braves have a solid lineup and productive pitching rotation to challenge in the National League. Offseason acquisitions and pivotal contract seasons could make the Braves even more serious contenders.

Sports editor Derrick Mahone looks at six pressing questions facing the team entering the season.

1. What can be expected out of Jason Heyward?

This could be a crucial year for the former Henry County High standout outfielder. He burst on the scene in 2010 by hitting a home run in his first big-league at-bat. He fell victim to the sophomore slump the following year and injuries plagued him last season. Heyward has the power to bat anywhere from No. 2 through 6 in the lineup. If he is totally healthy and the others around him produce, Heyward could be headed for a big year. Since making his big-league debut, Heyward has a career .261 average. Last season was his second-highest average (.269) since joining the Braves while producing his highest totals in home runs (27) and RBIs (82).

2. Who will replace Chipper Jones?

That is the mystery heading into the season, and manager Fredi Gonzalez is not tipping his hand. Most insiders say the Braves will platoon Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco throughout the season. They both hit the ball well throughout spring training, which has made for a tight race. Most insiders agreed that Johnson will get the start. During spring ball, Johnson hit .361 with 12 RBIs and three homers. During his four-year major league career, all in Houston, the 28-year-old has batted .276 with 33 homers and 171 RBIs. Depending on the starting team’s pitcher, Gonzalez could insert the left-handed-hitting Francisco in the lineup. Last season, Francisco hit .234 with nine homers and 32 RBIs.

3. What will the Upton brothers add to the lineup?

For one, it should ignite the Braves’ fanbase. The Braves are looking for production after signing B.J. Upton to a franchise-record five-year, $75.5-million contract in the offseason. His brother, Justin, was acquired in January from the Arizona Diamondbacks. With Heyward and the Upton brothers, the Braves have outfield power to rival anybody in baseball. Last season at Tampa Bay, B.J. Upton hit .246 with 28 homers and 78 RBIs while Justin hit .280 and had 17 homers and 67 RBIs.

4. How much will Brandon Beachy be missed?

In the short term — a lot. The 26-year-old righty is expected back after the All-Star break. With Beachy on the DL, the Braves rotation will consist of Opening Day starter Tim Hudson, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Paul Maholm. Teheran is the organization’s top pitching prospect, who some insiders say is a Stephen Strasburg-type pitcher. At AAA Gwinnett last season, Teheran compiled a 7-9 record with 97 strikeouts in 131 innings. The 37-year-old Hudson is the senior member of the group, and his age (38 in July) presents some concerns. He had a rough spring training, which saw him pitch 30 innings, give up 32 hits and produce only 11 strikeouts. If the staff can hold it together until Beachy returns, the Braves could find themselves contending.

5. Can Dan Uggla rebound?

There is some concern with the second baseman after two subpar seasons. His strikeout totals have been up (156 and 168) while his batting average has declined the last two years (.233 and .220). The 33-year-old didn’t do anything to calm any concerns during spring training as he had one of his worst offensive productions in Grapefruit League play during his major league career. He hit .200, his second-worst in his spring training career, and had spring-training lows of only six RBIs while getting fanned a career-high 25 times. On the good side, Uggla saw his average jump from .130 in early March to .224 in the latter part of the month.

6. Is this Brian McCann’s last year with the Braves?

The 29-year-old catcher is in a contract season with the organization. Atlanta officials have yet to indicate how he factors into their future plans. Last season, while injured, he hit .230 with 20 homers and 67 RBIs. As he recovers from right shoulder surgery, the Braves will look to Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird to man the catcher spot until his return. If McCann comes back to his old form, he gives the Braves a solid clean-up hitter.

Ask the experts

Terence Moore, national columnist with MLB.com

What is there to like about the Braves?

“This could become the best Braves team ever when it comes to the combination of hitting, pitching and speed. In addition, the Upton brothers (B.J. and Justin) have the potential to give the Braves something they haven't had since the days of Deion Sanders and David Justice — a swagger.”

What is there to be concerned about?

“For a team with so much promise, it also is a team with so many "ifs." If Brian McCann is health. If Dan Uggla is over his two-year hitting slump. If Andrelton Simmons can hit leadoff. If the Braves' lineup can avoid ugly slumps despite all those strikeout-prone hitters. If age doesn't finally catch up to Tim Hudson. If the Braves finally can get past the first round of the playoffs.”

Overall impression

“ The Braves should join the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and the Cincinnati Reds as the elite teams in the National League. The Braves could edge the Nationals for the NL East title, but they'll likely battle for one of the two wild-card spots.”

Paul Newberry, national writer at the Associated Press

What is there to like about the Braves?

“The bullpen and the outfield. The lineup should be much more balanced with right-handed hitters B.J. and Justin Upton complementing lefties Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. The bullpen will be dominant if Kimbrel comes close to matching what he did last season and everyone else is healthy (both Jonny Venters and Jordan Walden were slowed by injuries in spring training). Plus, shortstop Andrelton Simmons looks like a future star. Very impressive kid.”

What is there to be concerned about?

“The starting rotation doesn't look all that dominant. Tim Hudson is getting up there in age and Kris Medlen must prove that the second half of last season wasn't a fluke. Mike Minor is still developing and Paul Maholm is a solid but hardly overpowering starter. The wild card is Julio Teheran, the 22-year-old fifth starter and the Braves' top pitching prospect. He had a GREAT spring.”

Overall impression

“The Braves should be at least as good as last season. They definitely have more speed and athleticism. While replacing Chipper Jones won't be easy, I think they'll handle the transition just fine. They might have to settle for a wild card again behind Washington — the defending NL East champion Nationals look poised for another big year — but anything short of the playoffs would be a huge disappointment in Atlanta.”