Spring Training for the Atlanta Braves has a different feel this year. David O’Brien of the AJC noted as much recently in an interview and should not come as a surprise. Chipper Jones, face of the organization for over a decade, is not walking through that door. He was the last player remaining from the consecutive division era in Atlanta.
His retirement fully signifies a new wave of players and a new era in Atlanta. The Braves have made a concerted effort to become younger and have done that by making Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons cornerstones of the future. Combine them with the newly-acquired Upton brothers, and the Braves have a young nucleus. In fact, Heyward will likely be the longest-tenured Atlanta Brave in the Opening Day lineup if Brian McCann isn’t ready.
This makes the Braves future extremely bright, but who steps up as a leader for this year’s team?
Not only did Jones retire, but respected clubhouse guys like David Ross, Martin Prado and Eric Hinske are also gone for various reasons. The Braves will likely have leadership by committee this season, and Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Dan Uggla, Heyward and McCann look to be early candidates to be team leaders.
Hudson and Medlen look like they’ll be the No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers of the staff, and will have a leadership role. Hudson is the veteran of the clubhouse who provides some humor and comedic relief. Medlen has a similar personality, and has had recent success. They only play once in five games, so it can be harder for pitchers to have the same presence each night.
McCann will be the most-tenured position player when he becomes healthy, and earned respect from teammates last year by playing through an injured shoulder. However, McCann’s future with the Braves is shaky at best, which could lead him to being unsure what his role with the team is moving forward. Then there’s Dan Uggla, who has struggled during his time in Atlanta, but continually goes about his business. He hustles and plays the game the right way, so I expect he’ll have a leadership role this year.
Heyward has been through a lot in his short career. He came up with unprecedented expectations to be the face of the team, and made the All-Star game as a rookie. Then, injuries and struggles led to a disappointing remainder of 2010, and lurked the entire 2011 season. Heyward worked hard last off-season and got his career back on track.
His success has not altered his work ethic this season, he and looks just as determined to back it up this year. His talent, work ethic and maturity all point to Heyward stepping up this season as the team leader moving forward. While Heyward is not a rah-rah type leader, he has a quiet confidence and businessman-like approach that will lead by example.
The Braves should feel confident that they have a natural leader in Heyward in life after Jones.