There are some who discount the importance of leaders on a team. They’ll tell you there have been plenty of teams that have been successful that might not have necessarily had a great leader. It’s more about talent and production than an intangible like leadership that is hard to measure.
The Braves lost their leader Wednesday when Tim Hudson went down with an ankle injury. It was an awful blow, as the 38-year-old Hudson was not only the oldest player on the team, but also the most beloved and most respected.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez has already ordered Hudson that he’ll be expected in the clubhouse and in the dugout as much as possible for the rest of the season. Gonzalez knows just having Hudson around will help his teammates as they battle for another spot in the postseason.
This was already a young team -- one of the youngest in the game -- and now they’ve just lost a 38-year-old. The players on the roster who took the field Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals had an average age of 27.4 years old.
You could have made an argument earlier in the week, before the Hudson injury, that the Braves were already missing Chipper Jones as a leader. He had really developed into a great leader the past few years, and arguably no one had taken his place as the man in the clubhouse who everyone looked to for leadership.
This is a team that has struggled since the 12-1 start in April. It has gone 47-44 since, with inconsistency on offense as the main reason for the mediocrity. At times it is still a very good team, but it can turn around the next week and look somewhat ordinary. That’s when you need a veteran to help motivate the younger players who make up the core of a team.
Believe it or not, the Braves have a player who is going to have to assume that role. It’s not someone you might think of right off the bat, mainly because of his own struggles since he has been in an Atlanta uniform during the past 2½ seasons.
Wait, before you scoff at the notion that the 33-year-old Uggla must be the new team leader, consider a few things. He’s the oldest starter on the team by four years over Brian McCann. He’s also going to be around for two more years after this one, which matters. That’s why it’s tough to put this label on McCann, who is probably in his final year with the Braves as he will be a free agent after this season.
There’s no doubt that McCann is a leader on the team. He has been with the Braves the longest of anyone on the roster now that Hudson is out. But there’s just something about McCann being a potential lame duck that, fair or not, makes it more likely that Uggla is the better candidate.
Uggla is still struggling with his batting average. He’s at .204 and he continues to strike out too much. But Uggla has regained his power this season with 21 home runs through 97 games. Last season, Uggla hit only 19 all year, which was a huge drop off after he averaged 31.6 home runs per year in his first six seasons.
We have to come to grips with the type of player Uggla is now. He’s not going to hit for an average in the .260 range, as he did when he was with the then-Florida Marlins. Uggla has hit .222 with the Braves, so he’s just going to be a hitter who has a low average but can still be a home run threat.
But, off the field, Uggla has to lead the way. He’s no graybeard, but Uggla is someone with experience and who must demand respect. His comments Wednesday night when Hudson got hurt were impressive, as he talked about how the team must rally around each other without one of the team leaders and simply survive. Losing its No. 1 starting pitcher is tough for any team, but the Braves can’t afford to have the Hudson injury ruin the season.
Having Uggla become a new leader will perhaps avoid that. Chipper Jones isn’t walking back through the clubhouse anytime soon, and now even the heir apparent to the big three starting pitchers is on the shelf. It’s time for someone new to step up for the Braves.
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