Chipper-less Braves in good (young) hands

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- His old corner locker belongs to Dan Uggla now. His old, hallowed No. 4 spot in the lineup is occupied by Freddie Freeman now.

So for the 2013 Atlanta Braves, the world continues to spin. And life goes on. Even life after Chipper Jones. But that doesn’t mean it isn't surreal. For all of them.

"It's like when [Greg] Maddux and [Tom] Glavine and Smoltzie [John Smoltz] left," their former manager, Bobby Cox, was saying the other day. "You go in the locker room, and they're not there, and it's a weird feeling. You see somebody else's name there on their locker, and that's when it kind of hits you that hey, they're not here.

"But you know what? The franchise has always survived, each time that one of them left."

And the franchise will survive again, we predict. In fact, no one we know is more sure of that than Jones himself.

“The guys who are out there on the field working, those are the guys who are supposed to be there,” Jones said last month, during his cameo appearance as a special spring training hitting instructor/golfing buddy. “And the guys who aren't are off to the side. And that's me.”

So this is the way it's supposed to be. And this is the way it has to be. But that doesn't mean that there isn't something just a little different this time.

This isn't Jeff Blauser leaving, or Mark Lemke, or Javy Lopez. This isn't Steve Avery or Charlie Leibrandt or Kevin Millwood spinning out the ever-revolving door. It isn't even quite the same as Maddux or Glavine or Smoltz fading into the Georgia breeze.

No matter who disappeared before, for all those years, there was always someone around to serve as a living link to the greatest era in Braves history -- a decade and a half in which one first-place finish followed another. For just about ever.

But not now. Now, with Chipper gone, that door is officially slammed. So look out. Here it is. For the next generation, it's now their time.

It's now Jason Heyward's time. And Freeman's time. Round up the Upton brothers and Craig Kimbrel and Andrelton Simmons. It's their time, too.

Wherever the Braves are heading over the next three years or five or 10, they'll be the guys with their hands on the wheel. With an assist, for at least the time being, from the familiar faces of Brian McCann and Tim Hudson.

This is the way it's supposed to be. This is the way it has to be. And this is exactly what the folks who run the Braves planned for it to be.

“When we met back in October [to plot out their future], that was one of the things we talked about,” said general manager Frank Wren. “How do we transition from Chipper? … Just a great, great player. So we knew we weren't going to replace that. But we had to start the transition.”

More than four months later, they look around and love the view. Of a team featuring B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. And of a team that will have just one regular position player in his 30s (Uggla) and only two significant pitchers in their 30s (Hudson and Paul Maholm).

“We've got a lot of guys in here with talent,” said McCann. “And the thing is, it's young talent.”

So the talent part of this equation? They have that covered. The youth part? They have that covered, too, with the kind of club "that profiles in today's game," Wren said.

But what about the other part of the formula? For years now, there was never any question whose team this was.

It was Chipper's team.

For the outside world, he was the face. For the world within the clubhouse walls, he was the voice.

If something needed to be said, he said it. If someone needed to set the tone, he set it. If someone needed to lead, he rose up and led.

So with that face and that voice now subtracted from this mix, we spent a couple of days around the Braves this spring, posing the question: Whose team is it now? Who, exactly, is the face of this Braves team?

The answers we got back were fascinating.

• From manager Fredi Gonzalez: “I think the face of our team now is the outfield -- those three guys in the outfield [Heyward and the Uptons] -- because they’re young, and they've got a chance to play together for a while, at the very minimum three years. … We could do something special while those guys are here.”

• From McCann: “I don't want to put one guy on that. I think it'll evolve. But I can think of a lot of guys in here who have done some cool things. You're never going to replace Chipper, and we're not trying to. I think everybody wants to prove that, just because he's gone, he wasn't the only one in here who led.”

• From Cox: “I'll tell you a guy to keep your eye on -- Jason Heyward. He's a huge leader. He is already. He's always done that. I know he’s only 23. But if he says something, you'd better listen. You can just see [he's a leader]. It's written all over him."

• From Heyward: “The face of the team -- that’s kind of irrelevant in my eyes. … We all kind of lead each other by example and go from there."

•From Chipper: “It just happens. It's something that evolves. The guys who are thrust into that position -- they feel it once I leave the clubhouse. I think you'll see the maturation process start now with the Freemans and the Heywards because their time is going to come a lot quicker than mine did."

As a guy who joined the quasi-dynasty parade of the '90s while it was already in progress, Jones had to wait his turn. But for the young, centerpiece players on this team, the wait is over. Now it's just a question of which of them steps forward.

There's McCann, only 29 but now the only remaining position player who has played even a bit part in that run of 14 straight division titles, as a June call-up for the 2005 team: "This clubhouse is big on tenure," Jones said. “And Brian McCann is the guy who has been here the longest. He's the guy everybody listens to. It's just a matter of how long Brian is going to be here [with free agency approaching this fall].”

There's Hudson, a fellow who has been a Brave so long now (eight years) that he's started the fifth-most games (222) of any pitcher since the team moved to Atlanta: “Tim Hudson has been our leader for a long time,” said Wren. “And not only with the pitchers.”

There are the Upton brothers, two guys who have been Braves for what, like, 15 minutes? But since the day this team traded for Justin, a few weeks after signing B.J., “the city erupted with a lot of positives and a lot of energy,” Gonzalez said. "It wouldn't surprise me if we got back to Atlanta, and these guys were on every single billboard in town.”

There is Freeman, just 23 himself, but clearly a player “who’s got a chance to be one of those guys,” the manager said. “I just think he's got to grow into it. Some guys get to that point a little quicker than others.”

And there is the name that, it seems, we've heard more than any other: Jason Heyward, a man whose charisma stems from the way his towering presence combines with his tools, his local ties and his infectious passion to accomplish something great.

“I just see a guy who's maturing as a major league player and who's maturing as a man,” Gonzalez said. “He knows what he wants. And what he wants is to be a superstar. And he’s going after it the right way.”

If the men around him are going to nominate him for face-of-the-franchisehood, Heyward would prefer to share that gig. But if they want him to lead, just by being himself, then count him in.

“If guys are going to look at those one or two guys every day who bring that personality to the ballpark, who really enjoy being there and make everyone want to come to the field,” Heyward said, “I feel like people have kind of been looking to me for that since I've been here in 2010. I do love playing this game. And I love to treat others how I’m treated. … So if guys want to look to me for that, I’m perfectly fine with it.”

“You know,” said his manager, “leaders don’t have to be boisterous. … You don’t want, like, the Ray Lewis dance coming out of the Super Bowl tunnel. If he tries to lead that way, I don’t think you can do that 162 times in baseball. I think you'd hurt yourself. But if you lead by the way you go out and play the game, you can lead that way. And everybody else follows.”

To be honest, no matter how much we talk about it, it's way too soon to predict who will emerge as the most prominent figure of the Braves' next generation. We're a little more than three weeks into this team’s first spring training A.C. (After Chipper). Some things in life have to develop at their own pace. And this is one of them.

Wherever that evolution takes this group, though, it can't help but lead them all to a whole different place, with a whole different vibe. But in some ways, says McCann, it's still the same as it ever was.

“There’s definitely a difference,” he said. “But you know, what Chipper did, the guys who are here now saw how he went about his business. And that's why this organization has been so successful for so long. As guys who are going to be here, we kind of carry that torch and do the same thing that they've been doing for the last 20 years.

“There's a recipe for success in this organization. It started with Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz. And then, in this clubhouse, you had Smoltzie and Chipper and Glavine and those guys. And they kind of took you under their wing and let us take it from there.”

And now here they are, all these years later. It's their turn. It's their team. It's their time. And life will go on. Even life after Chipper Jones.