Heyward, Upton brothers form lethal trio
Braves outfielders have potential to frustrate opponents every game
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Twenty years after adding Greg Maddux to a starting rotation that already included Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, the Braves have created another potentially great trio in the form of Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers.
With the offseason additions of B.J. Upton and Justin Upton, the Braves have given Heyward a chance to be flanked by two other proven five-tool outfielders who have the potential to frustrate opponents with speed, power and defense on a nightly basis.
"I don't know of anybody who has had the combination of speed, power and all of the things these three kids can do," legendary former Braves outfielder Hank Aaron said last month. "But they've got to go out there and do it."
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If Heyward and the Upton brothers live up to their tremendous potential, the Braves will have one of the most dynamic and exciting outfield trios baseball has seen.
The official unveiling of this new-look outfield will come on Monday, when the Braves host the Phillies in the first Opening Day game at Turner Field since Heyward electrified the hometown crowd in 2010 by hitting a three-run home run with the first swing of his highly anticipated career.
"It doesn't feel like it has been three years at the Major League level," Heyward said. "Time flies when you're having fun."
After being burdened by injuries during his first two full big league seasons, Heyward started to really have some fun last year as he won his first National League Gold Glove Award and set career highs in both home runs (27) and stolen bases (21).
Still just 23, Heyward seems destined to achieve the 30-30 season that B.J. Upton nearly notched while hitting 28 home runs and recording 31 stolen bases for the Rays last year.
Similar to how B.J. is looking to prove the Braves were justified to give him a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract in November, his younger brother, Justin, appears to be on a mission to prove the D-backs were unwise to give up on him after he hit .280 with 17 home runs and a .785 OPS last year.
One year earlier, the D-backs won the NL West with Justin hitting 31 home runs and finishing fourth in balloting for the NL's Most Valuable Player Award.
"It's not going to be about who can one-up each other, but I think the brother rivalry will help them on some of those days when it is difficult to show up," said Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., who played a portion of his career with his younger brother, Billy.
Like Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were once fueled by each other's accomplishments in Atlanta, Heyward and the Upton brothers will likely form their own friendly rivalry during their individual pursuit of achieving the ultimate goal of winning a World Series.
"We're all pretty motivated already individually," Heyward said. "We want to give our best and look forward to doing well and be proud of each other. We can push each other. But I don't think there will be any issues there. We all want to win."
First-base coach Terry Pendleton played with Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz in Atlanta. While the former Cy Young Award winners were fierce competitors, they were also good teammates who have remained close friends since retiring.
"I think a little friendly competition is good for everybody, especially when they are on your team, because you can see what they do every single day," said Pendleton. "I think it's a plus for everybody. Whether they consider it a little friendly battle or they don't, others around them see how they go about doing it and it motivates everybody."
While the presence of the Upton brothers could prove very beneficial to Heyward, he has already proven to be one of the most dedicated and determined players in the Braves' organization. After hitting .227 with a .708 OPS while battling a sore shoulder in 2011, he developed an intense conditioning program he has utilized the past two offseasons.
More importantly, the chiseled 6-foot-4, 230-pound outfielder proved willing to put in the extra time necessary to fix the mechanics of his swing with Braves hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher. Heyward remained patient through the first two months of last year and then realized some of his tremendous potential by hitting .284 with 21 home runs and a .845 OPS in his final 108 games.
"I think this guy can be an elite player for many years to come," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's got great talent and a great work ethic. He's darn good."
Like Heyward, the Upton brothers are quite capable of being even better than they have been during the early stages of their careers. Over the next few years, they will have a chance to strive toward that next level and feed off of each other's accomplishments.
"I don't think there is any reason to want to do well other than we can," Heyward said. "We know what it feels like to do well and we know what it feels like to lose. This team is talented and young. It's exciting. Let's just go play ball. We're not going through the motions, by any means."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.