When the Atlanta Braves will open the 2013 season on Monday against the Philadelphia Phillies, it will be the first opening day without Chipper Jones on the team since 1995. How the team responds without his leadership in the clubhouse will determine if a return trip to the playoffs is in the cards.
Atlanta has added some new pieces -- most notably the Upton brothers -- and returns several familiar faces as well. Here's a look at the biggest questions facing the Braves as the season opens this week.
1) Who will lead?
Point guards and quarterbacks are the de facto leaders in basketball and football because they have the ball in their hands so much. It's natural and even gave birth to the "Take my ball and go home" mentality.
For baseball teams, leadership is as much about the clubhouse as it is on the field. Who's the guy in the locker room who answers the tough questions when they lose five straight? Who's the guy who can joke on anybody for whatever reason?
Chipper Jones was that guy for the Braves for the last decade. Now he's just some cat named Larry who's watching from the stands with a pinch between his cheek and gum. With Brian McCann battling injuries, that's another name off the list. Starting pitchers are in a world all to themselves most of the time, so that limits Tim Hudson's leadership chances. Plus, the leadership role needs to be someone who at least is among the upper echelon of players on the roster. No matter how good a guy Eric "King of Queens" Hinske may be, no one's turning to a pinch-hitter/fifth outfielder for counsel or a quote.
We think it falls to Freddie Freeman first, and from there it could be interesting.
2) Will the offense be a dichotomy of records?
The franchise record for strikeouts is 1,169, set in 2006. The franchise record for home runs is 235 set in 2003, and the club mark for runs is 907 also set in '03.
All of those numbers are in danger with the Braves' projected lineup. Question whether this team can manufacture runs -- this lineup will run but will not draw a lot of walks -- but do not question its power and ability to score.
That said, the number of strikeouts could be staggering.
3) Is there an ace on this staff?
Kris Medlen looked the part of an ace last year, going 10-1 overall and 9-0 as a starter with a sub-2.00 ERA. He was rock-solid down the stretch as the Braves pushed into the one-game postseason playoff against the Cardinals.
Still, his stuff is more solid than spectacular, and this spring his pitches have been as flat as the bill of his cap.
Hudson will get the ball for the Braves on Monday's opening day, but his days as a legitimate top-of-the-line starter seem past.
There is not an ace, per se, but Medlen, Hudson, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm give the Braves several reliable options. Maybe there's not a true No. 1 in the bunch, but there are several 2s and high 3s.
4) What's the biggest strength?
Again, it's Craig Kimbrel, who is the best closer in baseball. Plus, the Braves have become quite efficient at getting to Kimbrel, especially since Fredi Gonzalez managed the work load a great deal better last year.
Everyday Jonny Venters' arm soreness aside, the Braves' bullpen is top-notch.
After that, we'll say the overall power 2 through 8 in this lineup. If Andrelton Simmons hits first, the rest of the order -- which has been projected to be Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla, Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson and Gerald Laird (who will become Brian McCann in a month and the order will adjust) -- has 20-plus-homer potential.
Also, there's a fair chance that this will be the best defensive outfield Atlanta has put on the field since Andruw Jones was young and had not consumed half of Hixson.
5) Is this the year Uggla delivers?
Hard to know, and it's getting harder and harder to be able to remember when all Braves fans were super excited about the deal to bring Uggla to Atlanta. That was after the 2010 season when he hit 33 homers and .286 for the Marlins. He has hit .227 in 1,123 at-bats with the Braves -- and a huge part of that was his 33-game hitting streak after the all-star break in 2011 -- and has struck out 324 times in 315 games with Atlanta.
His spring has been brutal -- .200 with 25 strikeouts and just two extra-base hits in 75 at-bats -- and he is a notoriously slow starter, which does not bode well for April. How much time he gets to find his stroke will be interesting considering the lack of production we have seen from him.