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Braves back to work as spring training nears

Braves outfielder Jason Heyward laughs as he heads into the batting cages at Turner Field on Tuesday as Atlanta prepares for spring training.

Braves outfielder Jason Heyward laughs as he heads into the batting cages at Turner Field on Tuesday as Atlanta prepares for spring training.

Five Braves to play in World Baseball Classic

ATLANTA — Craig Kimbrel and Kris Medlen will be wearing Team USA uniforms rather than Braves gear for at least part of spring training, and they hope that includes the championship game of the World Baseball Classic on March 19.

Kimbrel is expected to be the U.S. closer, and Medlen was one of the starting pitchers named to the provisional roster.

Also missing for part of spring training will be Martin Prado, who will likely shuttle between left field and third base for the Braves in 2013, and shortstop Andrelton Simmons and backup infielder Ramiro Pena.

Prado will play for Venezuela, Simmons for the Netherlands and Pena for Mexico.

Kimbrel followed up his National League Rookie of the Year season in 2011 by posting a 1.01 ERA in 2012 and striking out 116 in 62 2/3 innings. He has 88 saves in his first two full seasons.

Medlen moved into the rotation midway through last year after recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, and he went unbeaten as a starter while finishing 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA. The Braves won a record 23 straight games with Medlen as the starter before losing the NL wild-card game to the Cardinals.

Braves pitchers will report to spring training in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Feb. 11, and the first full-squad workout is Feb. 15.

Kimbrel and Medlen will spend the first week of the Grapefruit League season with the team before traveling to Phoenix to prepare for pool play, which is March 8-10 at Chase Field.

Since the Netherlands will begin its pool play in Taiwan on March 2, Simmons will leave Braves camp around Feb. 22, when the Braves play their first Grapefruit League game. If his team makes it to the second round, Simmons would remain in Asia until March 12.

The U.S. and Venezuela would participate in second-round play at Marlins Park in Miami from March 12-16 if they advance as expected. The semifinals and finals at San Francisco’s AT&T Park are from March 17-19.

Team USA, which has never won the WBC title, will be managed by Joe Torre. Dale Murphy will be the first base coach and Greg Maddux the pitching coach.

Jason Heyward declined consideration for the U.S. team, citing his desire to concentrate on getting ready for the season during spring training.

ARBITRATION: Five Braves — Heyward, Medlen, LHP Jonny Venters, LHP Eric O’Flaherty and RHP Cristhian Martinez — settled their salary arbitration cases, leaving just Prado without a contract. The Braves have not gone to an arbitration hearing with a player since winning a case against LHP John Rocker in 2001. The Braves have been attempting to reach a multiyear agreement with Prado, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. He is seeking a $7.05 million salary for this year, while the team is prepared to pay $6.65 million.

UPTON TO ATLANTA?: Outfielder Justin Upton used his limited no-trade protection to block a trade from the Diamondbacks to the Mariners, keeping his name alive as a possibility to join his brother B.J. in the Braves outfield. However, Atlanta GM Frank Wren may not be willing to consider dealing three top prospects and a veteran reliever to the Diamondbacks, as the Mariners were. The Braves, with payroll limit of about $98 million for 2013, have the room to add Upton, who has three seasons left on his contract.

SPECIAL GUEST: Chipper Jones will be the special guest at the Braves 400 Fan Club’s annual Gameboree Saturday in Atlanta. Current and former Braves players and officials will pay tribute to the 40-year-old Jones, who retired after 19 seasons with a .303 career batting average, 468 homers and 1,623 RBI. He ranks 31st all-time in RBI and 32nd in homers.

INJURIES: Catcher Brian McCann (right shoulder surgery in October 2012) had a frayed labrum repaired and a cyst removed. He might miss most of the season’s first month. Pitcher Brandon Beachy (Tommy John surgery in June 2012) started playing catch in late October and was allowed to progress from 30 to 45 feet. He is expected to be ready to return by the middle of next season if all goes well. Shortstop Paul Janish (left shoulder surgery in October 2012) will miss part of spring training, and he isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season.

ATLANTA — Play ball!

On a frosty winter day, the Atlanta Braves started getting ready for the rites of spring — tossing around baseballs and jumping into the batting cage to take a few swings at Turner Field.

It may seem hard to believe, but spring training is just a few weeks away.

Among those turning out for the informal workouts Tuesday with temperatures in the low 40s: closer Craig Kimbrel, slugger Jason Heyward and recovering starter Brandon Beachy, who is coming off major elbow surgery but hopes to be ready by June.

As with most teams this time of year, there’s plenty of optimism. The Braves will have to make do without longtime star Chipper Jones, who retired, but they’re looking forward to adding free-agent signee B.J. Upton to the lineup.

“The sky’s the limit for us,” said Heyward, who seems poised to become the Braves’ biggest star now that Jones is gone. “We feel like it’s set up pretty well for us.”

Of course, it was a bit strange to see that empty locker on the other side of the room, the spot where Jones held court in the later years of a nearly two-decade-long career.

“We’ve been preparing for this day as much as anyone could,” Heyward said, glancing in that direction. “But it will feel different. For me, being from Georgia, ever since I’ve been in Georgia, No. 10 has been on the field for the Braves. That’s going to be a different feeling for me.”

But, he added, “Good things do come to an end. I’m just glad he was able to go out on his own terms.”

Kimbrel had a hectic offseason, getting married the first of December and honeymooning in the Dominican Republic.

“We got back in time for Christmas and New Year’s,” he said, “and now it’s baseball season.”

The right-hander will try to follow up one of the most dominant seasons ever by a closer, becoming the first pitcher in baseball history to strike out more than half the batters he faced (116 out of 231).

Kimbrel also is getting ready to play for his country for the first time. He was selected, along with teammate Kris Medlen, to pitch for the U.S. at the World Baseball Classic in March.

“I’m very excited,” Kimbrel said. “It doesn’t happen too often, and this is my chance to do it. I’m going to do my best and try to help Team USA win.”

Kimbrel and Medlen aren’t the only Atlanta players who’ll be suiting up in the WBC. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons will play for the Netherlands, while third baseman Martin Prado is part of the Venezuelan roster.

Those four will have to leave Atlanta’s camp in the middle of spring training, but general manager Frank Wren said he would never discourage a player from representing his country unless there was some sort of injury concern. In fact, he thinks the experience might actually help someone such as Kimbrel, who wasn’t as sharp as he wanted to be at the start of last season.

Heyward passed on a chance to play for the U.S. team, however, feeling it was better to stay with the Braves throughout the spring.

“He sees the long-range benefit of being in our camp,” Wren said. “He feels like working consistently with our guys will help him during the season.”

Heyward was a rookie star in 2010, homering in his first big league at-bat and drawing praise as the future of baseball from no less than Hank Aaron. After struggling through injuries and mechanical problems in his sophomore season, he bounced back nicely last year — 27 homers, 82 RBIs and 21 stolen bases.

He feels his career is back on track.

“The biggest thing that’s different is I don’t feel like I’m searching for anything,” he said. “Baseball is a feel game. You need to know what you’re looking for. You need to have the right feel for how your swing is broken down: timing, tempo, just things as simple as your stance. I feel like all those things I have now.”

Beachy is taking a different approach this spring, since he’s still in the middle of a yearlong recuperation from reconstructive surgery on his right elbow.

For him, the normal routine of spring training won’t come until a couple of months into the season.

“I’m not too thrilled about that,” said Beachy, who was the Braves’ most effective starter before he went down. “I want to feel part of the normal routine as soon as possible.”

For everyone else, it will get here soon enough.

Sure, the Super Bowl is still more than a week away. But the Braves’ pitchers and catchers will be reporting to camp in Florida on Feb. 11.

Yep, it’s almost time to play ball.