Could youth be Atlanta Braves’ undoing?

Kris Medlin
Which young star will step up and lead the Braves in 2014? (Daniel Shirey/USA Today Sports)

It’s been a quiet offseason for the Atlanta Braves. Quiet, at least, when you compare it to last year, when Frank Wren went out and landed brothers B.J. and Justin Upton within about a month of each other. This year, the biggest moves have simply been the Braves admitting they don’t have deep enough pockets to keep two of their longtime players.

Yep, it’s sad to say, but starter Tim Hudson and catcher Brian McCann will no longer be wearing a tomahawk.

McCann came as no surprise to most fans. His expected exit had been discussed for most of 2013. He’d hit the sweet spot for a talented catcher — enough years under his belt to prove he had long lasting chops, and at the point in his career where it was time to make a long-term commitment. Unfortunately, with so many Braves young stars hitting arbitration, a choice had to made between trying to keep them or continue the contract with a born and bred Brave. Add to that the fact he plays one of the most physically demanding positions on the field and it’s fairly easy to see why the Braves wouldn’t give him the kind of contract he’d want, hometown discount or no. But, the Yankees? Anybody, Anybody but the Yankees!

Hudson was a bit of a surprise, though. Just when it looked like Wren was going to cut Huddy a one-year deal to stay in Atlanta, the San Francisco Giants swooped in and offered him a contract he couldn’t refuse.

As much as I respect and am confident in Hudson’s abilities, I find it hard to justify a two-year, $28 million deal. He turns 40 during next season and is coming off an injury that absolutely demolished the ankle on his push-off leg. Oh, and since the injury, he hasn’t thrown a single pitch. I’m glad he has guaranteed himself a nice chunk of change right at the end of his career, but I’m also glad the Braves aren’t the ones taking on that kind of risk.

In fact, I’m happy for them both and wish them well. The question now, however, is this: Who is going to lead the Braves? With those two gone, Kris Medlen becomes the longest-tenured Atlanta Brave. And before you ask, he’s the ripe old age of 28.

It looks like Wren’s wish to acquire an ace starting pitcher is going to be answered by nine-year veteran Gavin Floyd. With a career 4.48 ERA and a 70-70 win-loss record, he’s not exactly the kind of ace I had in mind. Not only that, but he’ll be returning from Tommy John surgery, which he had last May. That means the Braves have four (yeah, four) pitchers coming off the procedure, including Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty (assuming he’s re-signed) and Brandon Beachy. Stranger moves have come through for the Braves before, I guess.

When Chipper Jones hung up his spikes, McCann became the defacto “leader” of the team, even though Jones made appearances in the clubhouse throughout 2013, and will likely continue to do so. That is, if he gets over his “butthurt shenanigans.” With McCann gone, many fans are worried the Braves won’t have the same kind of leadership in the clubhouse.

Even while McCann and Jones were still playing, there were other guys who became clubhouse darlings. Guys like David Ross and Eric Hinske, and even Peter Moylan; they all helped to define the clubhouse culture and lead the team by example. Obviously, those guys are all gone now, too, and even Paul Maholm won’t be back to provide a veteran presence.

Some might argue it doesn’t really matter. That’s what coaches are for, right? Fredi Gonzalez, pitching coach Roger McDowell and first base coach Terry Pendleton, to name a few. That’s true in a lot of ways. But on any team, and especially this one, which has an average age just shy of 27, the coaches are the adults. They’re the bosses. So, players like to have one of their own who can keep them on target.

Wren, in an interview (it was on the radio, you’ll have to trust me on this one), said that he’s unconcerned. He feels the team has a natural pecking order and the leaders will organically rise to the occasion. Which is the best you can get, really. Crowning a captain, like Derek Jeter or Jason Varitek, is a tradition that isn’t practiced by many teams in the majors anymore. The idea of a team leader is an unofficial position, usually taken by the guy who feels it necessary to set an example. And that guy isn’t always ready to take that spot. Chipper almost had it pushed on him by default, choosing for a long time to be the blue-collar, keep-his-head-down kind of player.

But for all the youth the Braves have, this isn’t their first go-round. Most of them already have two playoff appearances (yeah, I’m calling the Wild Card Game a playoff, so what?) and are coming off a 96-win season. Most of them have been on the field and in the clubhouse with Jones, Hudson and McCann.

Maybe Wren is right on this one; when the time calls for it, the guy who’s ready to step up will do it. Simply because the team needs it.

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