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Thursday, January 24, 2013
Braves bring Upton brothers together

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Well, there's now one prediction for the 2013 season that's guaranteed to come true:

The Atlanta Braves will lead the major leagues in Upton brothers.

With their trade Thursday to acquire Justin Upton from Arizona, eight weeks after signing his big brother, Bossman Junior, as a free agent, the Braves have officially collected the complete set of Uptons. So now the question is, what do they win?

Justin and B.J. Upton
The Upton brothers -- Justin, 25, and B.J., 28 -- will make up two-thirds of the Braves' outfield for at least the next three years.

Well, they won this trade for one thing. We surveyed seven big-league executives and scouts Thursday. And while they had reservations, all but one of them would have made this deal without blinking.

"Great deal for Atlanta," said one AL exec.

"Love, love, love this for Atlanta," said an NL exec.

"Any time you can trade for a player like that," said another NL executive, "an All-Star-caliber player who's that young [25 years old], it has to improve your team."

By adding Justin Upton, the Braves got younger, added much-needed power, upgraded their outfield defense and set themselves up to have one of the most talented young outfields in baseball in place for at least the next three years. They have B.J. (age 28) signed through 2017, Justin (age 25) signed through 2015 and their mega-skilled right fielder, Jason Heyward (age 23), under control through 2015.

"It's a scout's dream," said one NL executive. "It's three five-tool players. That's what you've got in one outfield."

"If somebody had said three years ago that you could have those three guys in the same outfield," said one scout, "people would have been going nuts. Right?"

Uhhhh, right. And that's what's so interesting. None of those three has maxed out all the tools in his tool box, either. So there isn't just big talent here. There's upside.

If, that is, the Upton brothers can bring out the best in each other -- as opposed to the opposite.

But can they? Not an easy question to answer.

"It's a risk," said one executive who has some history with the Uptons.

"That's the $64,000 question," said another exec with similar history. "B.J.'s troubles in Tampa are well-documented. He's been a moody player. Did he grow out of it to some degree? Yes. But he frustrated a lot of people along the way. And the same with his brother in Arizona, because he's out the door, too. So now do they feed off each other and give each other something they didn't have in the two places that just set them free?"

That's an impossible question to answer, of course. Anyone who has ever spent time around the Upton brothers will tell you how likeable they are and how close they are. But will that closeness be a good thing or a precarious thing, now that they're playing side-by-side in the same outfield? Again, impossible question to answer -- yet.

This can be a really good thing if they're able to feed off each other in a positive way. But if one of them is struggling or having problems with a coach or manager, then you could have two guys who aren't happy with what's going on instead of one.

-- A scout on Justin and B.J. Upton

"That's where the risk comes in," said one scout with a background in coaching. "To me, it's a maturity thing. Both these guys should be at a place in their lives where they understand what's going on. They've had their travails elsewhere. And now they've got a chance to support each other. …

"This can be a really good thing if they're able to feed off each other in a positive way. But if one of them is struggling or having problems with a coach or manager, then you could have two guys who aren't happy with what's going on instead of one."

Maybe on a previous incarnation of the Braves, that would be less of an issue. Chipper Jones would have handled it. John Smoltz would have handled it. Bobby Cox would have made sure somebody handled it.

But the Uptons arrive in Atlanta at a time when the faces are changing, the clubhouse is changing and the culture is changing. So more than one of the people we surveyed Thursday raised a pivotal question about this Braves team:

"Who's the real leader on that club now?" asked one longtime scout. "Losing Martin Prado is huge from an intangible standpoint."

"That's my question," said an NL executive. "Does this trade make them better talent-wise? No question. But team-wise? I don't think so. I'm not faulting them on the deal. I'm just asking: Who's been the heart and soul of the Atlanta Braves for the last 18 years? That's Chipper Jones. And who's been the player for the last two years who looked like he was sliding in to assume that responsibility? Martin Prado. So that's a big, big loss for that team."

Prado certainly wasn't the most famous name on this team's roster. But he was so beloved by his teammates and carried so much weight in everything he said and did that his exit in this deal will reverberate more than most people would think.

It was the biggest reason, in fact, the same NL exec was the only person we surveyed who gave a thumbs-down on this trade.

"I like the deal on paper because talent is talent," he said. "But you look at a team like the Marlins last year, and you say, 'Sometimes, things look good on paper but they don't look so good on the dirt.' The pieces have to fit together. And you've got to have guys at the front of the bus who know you don't have to be cool. Sometimes, you have to push buttons that need to be pushed to keep your team on the right track. And who does that now on this team?

"Maybe it's Tim Hudson, but he's a pitcher. Maybe it's Brian McCann. But as much as I love him and I think he's a winner, he's worried about his own future there, about whether he'll be the next guy out the door. So not everything about this deal is what it appears."

But when you weigh it all -- age and talent, short-term and long-term upside -- there doesn't seem much doubt: This was a trade the Braves had to make.

"What they gave up wasn't nearly what Arizona had on the table with Seattle," said an AL scout. "They [the Diamondbacks] had a much better chance of getting impact from that Seattle deal than what they got in this deal."

"They're getting a 25-year-old player who was an MVP candidate a year ago," another exec said of the Braves. "And they traded [expendable] parts for him … nothing that will hurt Atlanta at all."

Somewhere off in the distance, you can hear a chorus of voices in Arizona saying: Teams don't trade 25-year-old MVP candidates without a really good reason. And that may be true.

But all we know is, there are two extremely talented brothers heading for Turner Field with a chance for two much-needed fresh starts. "All they need to do now," said one scout, "is be 80 to 90 percent of what we've all projected them to be -- and the Atlanta Braves will have two All-Stars on their hands."