I remember sitting in the stands in Philadelphia with my wife, waiting to see that number 10 jersey come into the batting cage. It was a very hot summer afternoon prior to a Sunday matinee between my beloved Braves and the division rival Phillies.
Then, I saw him emerge from the group of players near the on deck circle, Chipper Jones, a mainstay at third base for the Braves and my favorite baseball player. He was wearing the blue batting practice jersey and took some great swings in the cage, sending several balls over the outfield wall.
I remember saying to my wife, “There will be a day when he will not be able to play anymore, and that will be a sad day.” Well, at the end of the 2012 season in that horrible; gut wrenching loss in the new NL wild card “play-in” game, that day became reality: Chipper Jones finished his storied baseball career.
Chipper Jones was commonly referred to as the “face of the franchise”. Now, the Braves have to find a new player to fill that role within their clubhouse. I will present a few players that could potentially fill this role for the Braves in the future, and also present my choice for who I believe can most adequately fill this important void.
Replacing a Legend
I have been a fan of the Braves for many years, and I have seen many great players wear their uniform and do outstanding work both on and off the field of play. Of course, like many Braves fans, I am a big supporter of Dale Murphy. He was a great player and an even better man.
Murphy led by example, and was always looking to do more in the Atlanta community. I went on a tour of Turner Field before a game and he had been to the facility the week before for an event. All of the staff I interacted with really respected Dale Murphy, and that speaks volumes to his character.
When I was younger, my favorite player was Terry Pendleton, who was the predecessor to Chipper Jones at third base. He was a veteran when he got to Atlanta and he was the leader of the team. I loved the way he played and approached every at bat like it was a battle with the pitcher.
Following Pendleton’s tenure with the team, Chipper Jones, burst onto the scene as the next star and future leader of the franchise. Jones set the tone for the team, and his offensive production in the middle of the lineup was critical for their success. It is going to be hard to replace one of the great players in the history of the Braves franchise, but that is what they are going to have to do in the near future.
The Current Candidates to be the “new face”
The current roster makeup of the Braves offers a few possibilities for the next “face of the franchise”. The most likely candidates are: Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Kris Medlen, Brian McCann, and Andrelton Simmons.
However, I believe that while Simmons is a dynamic player, he needs more experience before he could command that type of role in the clubhouse. The case against Medlen is similar. He is still very young and also it is difficult to have a starting pitcher in that leadership role for the franchise because they play every fifth day.
Brian McCann, now that Chipper has retired, has the most tenure of any player in the clubhouse. He is dealing with rehabbing a major injury and also has the impending free agency looming. The Braves may take a different direction at catcher. So that brings a “lame duck” type of feeling surrounding McCann and his role with the team.
The Final Two and my choice for the role
So, that leaves Heyward and Freeman as the most logical remaining candidates to build the franchise around moving forward. Both players are the same age, 23, and have major league experience. In this case, they are both “home grown” Braves players which helps their cause. The Braves and their fan base like the players that come up through their system versus the paths of outside acquisition.
Jason Heyward came up to the big league club with much fan fare, and a moniker: “The J-Hey Kid” modeled after the nickname held by Willie Mays “The Say Hey Kid”. The comparison to an all-time great such as Mays usually foretells some future issues for the young player, in this case, Heyward. He did slump in his second season, commonly referred to as the “sophomore jinx”, but he rebounded to post great numbers in 2012.
In my opinion, the issue with Heyward is that while he has a big upside and potential to be a star player, he has some flaws in his game. He also plays right field which is an easier position to replace than first base on the major league level.
It is for those reasons, that I believe that the Braves next “face of the franchise” will be Freddie Freeman. I think he is going to have the breakout year in 2013 that the Braves are hoping for, and that he will get the big contract extension deserving of a future star in this league.
Freeman plays a premier position at first base and has inherited Chipper Jones’ old lineup spot, batting in the cleanup spot in the order. He has the potential to be a 30 home run guy and is a good defensive first baseman as well.
In the end, it is not easy to replace a legend like Chipper Jones. The Braves have seen many other great players come and go, and they have continued to win. I think they are well positioned with their current roster to move forward into the future with confidence that they will continue their winning tradition.