Braves seek new leaders

sports@macon.comJanuary 1, 2013 

The Atlanta Braves have lost a lot of leaders from the 2012 team this offseason.

Chipper Jones retired. He was 40 years old last year. David Ross (35 years old), Eric Hinske (34) and Matt Diaz (34) all signed elsewhere as free agents. Chad Durbin (34) and Peter Moylan (33) are two free agent relievers who don’t look to be coming back.

As it stands now, the Braves will have only seven players (Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Cristhian Martinez, Gerald Laird, Dan Uggla, Paul Janish and Reed Johnson) on the major league roster who are 30 years old or older.

This will drastically decrease the average age of the 2013 roster, making the Braves a much younger team. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but what is troubling is wondering where the leadership will come from this season.

Some will tell you leadership doesn’t matter. It’s an intangible that can’t be quantified, and therefore it’s not important. But, ask any major leaguer about having veterans in a clubhouse, and they’ll tell you exactly how crucial it is to have important characters on the roster.

It’s a long season, so you need personalities who can keep a clubhouse loose and to motivate others when it is needed.

There are veteran players on the roster who will undoubtedly pick up the torch, particularly from Jones. He was the heart and soul of the team for two decades, and he won’t be easy to replace. Jones himself has said this will now be McCann’s team.

But McCann will be a free agent at the end of 2013, and, considering the economics of baseball, it’s unlikely the Braves are going to invest in a soon-to-be 30-year-old catcher for the long-term.

In some ways, McCann has set the tone in the clubhouse for a couple of years. He watched how veterans like Jones and John Smoltz carried themselves, and McCann is now a veteran who knows what it means to wear the Atlanta uniform.

So, for at least this year, McCann will be a veteran leader on the Atlanta team.

Martin Prado is another player the others look to, mainly because he is so respected in the clubhouse as a player who plays the game the right way and hustles each and every time he takes the field. Most consider Prado the best player on the Atlanta team, and it has been said that as Prado goes, so goes the Braves.

As for the players older than 30, Hudson is the leader of the pitching staff. He jokes about being the old man in the clubhouse, but it’s now true. Hudson will be 38 in July, and he’s about where he’s year-to-year as far as how long he will continue to pitch. But those younger pitchers do look to Hudson as the leader.

If Moylan leaves, the bullpen will be very young. Martinez will be the only player older than 30, and he’s a middle reliever. You wonder if the Braves will do what they did last spring and bring in a veteran reliever, even though right now the numbers are pretty solid in the pen.

His stats were bad last year, but Hinske provided significant leadership in the clubhouse -- not only for younger players, but for older players, as well. He motivated players like Jones to play hard each and every game. Perhaps Johnson will inherit that role this season.

Who knows if Laird can replace Ross, who was almost like another manager in the dugout. Ross was well-respected, and reports have Laird as being a solid player who could inherit that responsibility. But, for the past four years, Ross has been a tremendous presence in the clubhouse.

Most wonder if Jason Heyward, who will only be in his fourth major league season, will assume a larger role on the team. When veterans like David Justice, Fred McGriff and Jeff Blauer left the Braves back in the late-1990s, Jones had to step up, even at a young age, and become a leader. Heyward is in that spot now, and considering how he matured on and off the field last season, the Braves are anxious to see how he responds.

Heyward is this team’s next star. Jones inherited that from Justice, and now Heyward is taking the baton from Jones. That will mean Heyward will be counted on for even more production in the lineup, and, at the same time, be someone that leads by example in the clubhouse. Heyward is a more reserved player, but his actions can speak louder than words.

We all knew this would be a different year with Jones gone, but the loss of other veterans is going to bring a very different look to the Braves. It will be interesting to see how the personalities emerge to form the new environment in the clubhouse.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter@yahoo.com.

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