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On Baseball: Nationals still on top, but Braves’ moves garner attention

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Two weeks ago, when the Atlanta Braves added their second Upton brother of the offseason, it shook up the on-paper hierarchy in Major League Baseball. The World Series odds, as calculated by oddsmakers like Bovada, shifted. The analysts gushed. The Braves had put together an impressive outfield and a seemingly stacked lineup.

Everyone noticed. Even the reigning National League East champion Washington Nationals, themselves among the favorites to win the 2013 World Series. Right?

"I don't pay attention a whole lot," Jayson Werth said a few days after the trade bringing Justin Upton to Atlanta put the former Diamondback alongside his brother B.J. and Jason Heyward in the Braves' outfield.

Werth appeared to be in the minority. Plenty of players on the Nationals' roster had indeed noticed, as had general manager Mike Rizzo, who was the scouting director in Arizona when the Diamondbacks selected Upton with the first pick in the 2005 draft.

But the question, of course, is how much better the Braves actually got. Without a doubt they added talent in the Upton brothers, but in doing so they closed the door on bringing back Michael Bourn, they traded away Martin Prado (a Nationals killer), and are still going to have to deal with the void left by the retirement of Chipper Jones. All three players possessed different skills than the additions the Braves made in their place.

The answer won't be borne out until they play the games. The Braves' more powerful lineup is now chock-full of players with higher strikeout totals and lower on-base percentages than the unit that helped them win 94 games in 2012. But it was the question Werth found himself asking when he did hear about the trade and, at least publicly, emoted little more than a shrug at the new developments.

"I heard the Upton boys are going to be in Atlanta," Werth said. "But then, they're not going to have Michael Bourn or Martin Prado. Or Chipper. I think we've got the best team in baseball. If that's your mindset going in, no one else matters, you just have to take care of yourself."

Every team will report to spring training next week with their own uncertainties. For the Nationals, coming off the best season in organizational history and their first division crown, there are plenty.

Can they repeat the regular-season success of 2012 and add it to the prolonged playoff run that eluded them? Can they hold off the Braves, or the Phillies, or perhaps even the Mets and the Marlins if those two greatly exceed expectations? Will the Nationals be able to sustain injuries but gather production from other sources the way they did last year? Will Gio Gonzalez's link to a Miami anti-aging clinic be a distraction from the goals at hand?

But until proven otherwise, they're the team to beat in the National League East. The Braves -- or any other divisional contender -- will have to answer their own questions before they can challenge the Nationals for that crown.

"The Braves were good last year," said shortstop Ian Desmond. "They were on our tails the whole year and they're going to be that much better this year. I don't think anybody on the Washington Nationals signed up to just throw their hats on the field. We want to play against the best. We feel like we're in one of the strongest divisions in baseball and we'd like to see where we stack up."

Manager Davey Johnson is fond of saying that the hotter the fire, the tougher the metal -- his point being that facing the best only helps to strengthen a team. But while noticing the Braves' moves or improvements is fine, panicking is not yet warranted.

The Nationals noticed. They also watched their own team acquire a leadoff-hitting center fielder in Denard Span, get back Adam LaRoche, its Silver Slugging, Gold Glove first baseman, and add Rafael Soriano to a bullpen that already contained at least two closers. They noticed. They're not ready to concede just yet.

"I thought we were good enough to be world champs last year and our team is better this year," Werth said. "We dealt with a lot of injuries last year and our bench guys came through and got us to where we were going to be. With that said, I think our team is better this year and our bench is still just as good.

"I like our chances. Obviously anything can happen when you get to the postseason but you have to get in. And I feel good about us getting in."

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