Braves preparing to begin life after Chipper
GM Wren could pursue new third baseman via free agency or trade
ATLANTA -- By the time Hank Aaron played his final season in Atlanta, Braves fans had already gotten used to the fact that he had made the transition from everyday right fielder to part-time left fielder.
When Dale Murphy exited Atlanta 16 years later, he was no longer capable of doing what he had done when he won back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player Awards and six consecutive NL Gold Glove Awards. Though Braves fans were sad to see "Murph" go, they were excited about the fact that his absence opened a spot in the outfield for David Justice.
Now, 22 years later, the Braves and their fans are in a unique situation. Yes, they have said goodbye to other iconic figures in the past. But they have never encountered the challenge that they now face: preparing for life without Chipper Jones.
"That's a big hole to fill on the field and in the clubhouse," pitcher Tim Hudson said. "There are some big shoes to fill in that area. But that is the nature of the game. Superstars retire. Somebody has to come in to do their job, and that is never an easy thing to do. We'll see. There are some pretty decent options we already have in place."
As long as Hudson and catcher David Ross both return for the 2012 season, the duo seems to be the most likely candidates to pick up some of the leadership responsibilities previously handled by Jones. As for finding a third baseman, the Braves already have plenty of reason to be confident in Martin Prado's ability to handle the position.
But the challenge of replacing Jones is certainly not that simple. Along with being a clubhouse leader and a productive third baseman, Jones spent the past two decades as the face of the organization.
While there might have been a time when he shared the spotlight with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, Jones has been one of the organization's most recognizable figures dating back to 1990, when he was selected with the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft.
"I remember him coming through the clubhouse that summer after he had been selected," Murphy said. "He was so young looking. If I had known what I do now, I would have had him sign two dozen baseballs for me."
Right up until taking the final swing of his career, Jones was polishing his Hall of Fame credentials. While hitting .287 with a .832 OPS this past year, he stood as one of the most consistent members of the Braves' lineup. Now Braves general manager Frank Wren is assigned the task of replacing Jones. Though Prado is capable of playing third base, his role next year will be based on what the Braves are able to find as they reconstruct their roster via the trade and free-agent markets.
If the opportunity arises for the club to acquire a third baseman via trade or free agency, Prado will likely begin next year as the starting left fielder. Given that Wren will be looking to re-sign All-Star outfielder Michael Bourn or find his replacement, it might be difficult to acquire two outfielders this winter.
At the same time, a quick look at this year's free-agent list provides reason to believe the Braves would be more likely to acquire a third baseman via trade. They will closely monitor all situations, including those involving the Mets' David Wright and the Padres' Chase Headley. The Mets are expected to exercise the 2013 option on Wright's contract. As for Headley, there is debate about whether the Padres should "sell high," as Headley is fresh off the finest season of his young career.
There is also the chance the Braves could enter the 2013 season with the intention to play Juan Francisco at third base in games in which the opposing team starts a right-handed pitcher. If Prado manned third against left-handed starting pitchers, Reed Johnson -- a right-handed hitting outfielder -- could handle left field.
"We're losing one Hall of Fame player and the salary that goes with a Hall of Fame player," Wren said. "We're going to be looking to replace it. As we do that, it gives us an opportunity to add another big player."
Along with replacing Jones' on-field production, the Braves will be looking for some of their veterans to compensate for Jones' loss in the clubhouse.
Things would not change much for Hudson and Ross, who have spent the past few years as two of the clubhouse's most influential presences. Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann certainly has the credentials to increase his role as a leader.
But given that McCann could be entering his final season in Atlanta, the Braves might need some of their other everyday position players to take a step forward.
The top candidate to assume this leadership role and become the next "face of the Braves" is Jason Heyward, the incredibly talented 23-year-old outfielder who started to become much more comfortable with his role as a public figure this year.
"I think we have a couple guys who could step in for Chipper's leadership," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think Heyward is one. I think [Freddie] Freeman is growing up in that direction. I think McCann is already there. I say Heyward and Freeman because I think those guys are going to be here as long as any of them."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.