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Atlanta locks in Uggla for five years

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ATLANTA -- The Braves locked up Dan Uggla with the team's largest contract in nearly a decade. Now, they're ready to take on the mighty Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.

Uggla completed a $62 million, five-year contract with Atlanta on Thursday, passing up the chance to perhaps earn a more lucrative deal in free agency after the 2011 season.

"This team is ready to win right now," he said. "The core group is going to be here a long time. We have the pieces in place to win for a long time."

Indeed, the Braves have addressed their major offseason need, adding a right-handed power hitter to a lineup that includes lefties Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and the new starting first baseman, rookie Freddie Freeman. Uggla, acquired from Florida in a November trade, has averaged 31 homers, 100 runs scored and 93 RBIs over his five-year career.

"If we were going to spring training today," general manager Frank Wren said, "we would feel very good about our team."

Uggla receives a $1 million signing bonus, $9 million this year and $13 million in each of the following four seasons.

His contract is Atlanta's largest total payout since Andruw Jones signed a six-year, $75 million deal after the 2001 season, signaling a commitment to keep up with a Phillies team that made the biggest splash of the winter by signing Cliff Lee to a $120 million deal.

Philadelphia has assembled one of baseball's greatest starting rotations ever, adding Lee to the already imposing trio of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

The Braves don't sound intimidated, not with Uggla ready to hold down a spot in the middle of the batting order for years to come and a starting rotation that includes Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.

"The Phillies are going to be good. Very few people have (ever had) a pitching staff like they have," Uggla conceded. "At the same time, we have guys who are going to give us a chance to win every day. Look at our pitchers. We're pretty good, too. And we've got some guys who can hit the ball."

In 2010, Atlanta was in first place much of the season but faded down the stretch as injuries piled up. The Phillies rallied to win another division title by six games, with the Braves hanging on to claim the wild card for their first postseason appearance since 2005.

The Phillies, who had an NL-leading 97-65 record, will surely go into next season as the favorite to win another division title and get back to the World Series after losing to San Francisco in the NLCS.

Don't count us out, the Braves say, especially if 38-year-old Chipper Jones recovers from the second major knee operation of his career.

Jones, in fact, may hold the key to Atlanta's chances. The former NL MVP and batting champion got off to such a miserable start last season that he considered retirement, but he was hitting .400 with three homers in August when he hurt his left knee on a fielding play. He finished at .265 with 10 homers and 46 RBIs overall.

Wren said Jones' recovery is right on target and he should have no restrictions when spring training begins next month. If he's ready to go at third base, All-Star Martin Prado will move to left field to fill what has been a major hole for several seasons. And the Braves have high hopes for Freeman, who hit .319 with 18 homers and 87 RBIs at Triple-A Gwinnett.

Suddenly, a lineup that struggled at times to produce runs looks a whole lot stronger.

"Chipper is a big part of our lineup, regardless of his age," Wren said. "Now, he's not the Chipper Jones of his MVP year, but he makes a big difference. You saw what happened in August and September after we lost him."

While the Phillies' rotation has no peer, the team did lose one of its top hitters when Jayson Werth left for a $126 million contract with another NL East team, the Washington Nationals.

Uggla was surely tempted to test free agency when he saw those numbers, but he ultimately decided that Atlanta was the right fit as long as he got a five-year contract. He's close to his family in Tennessee and reunited with his former Florida manager, Fredi Gonzalez, who took over the Braves when longtime skipper Bobby Cox retired after last season.

"Maybe I could've gotten more money next year," Uggla said. "But the bottom line is: This is where I want to be."

The Braves couldn't be happier.

Bring on the big, bad Phillies.

"This gives us a big right-handed bat in the middle of our lineup for a long time," Wren said. "This is a good day for the Atlanta Braves."