Replacing icons never easy, but clubs must move on
Braves, Rangers hope to adjust well to life without longtime stars in Chipper, Young
A Major League team gathers for Spring Training. The timeless rituals begin anew. There's just one thing missing. Whether because of retirement or a trade or free agency, a familiar face is gone. Not just familiar, but a player who had been there long enough and accomplished so much that he has almost become synonymous with his team.
The most striking case when camps open this year will be in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the Braves will be without retired Chipper Jones for the first time in two decades. Meanwhile, in Surprise, Ariz., the Rangers will move forward without seven-time All-Star Michael Young, the franchise's all-time hits leader who was traded to the Phillies.
Still, the show must go on. Just ask the Cardinals, who after winning the World Series in 2011 went without Albert Pujols in the middle of their lineup last year ... and won just two fewer games in the regular season and again advanced to the National League Championship Series.
"It's never easy to lose a player like that," St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. "What you're hoping for is that the brand is perhaps bigger than the name. In our case -- and I credit [former manager] Tony La Russa and [current manager] Mike Matheny for carrying this on -- it's really been about creating a culture within our clubhouse. That culture exists from having iconic players be a part of it, but I think it's about the deep history of the Cardinals.
"So when you think about the impact somebody like a Stan Musial had on this team and this city, you think about somebody like Red Schoendienst coming around the ballpark. Lou Brock and Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith -- all these guys help create a like-minded way of thinking about what it means to be a St. Louis Cardinal. So, yes, when you lose an iconic player it's not easy because of [their] contributions, but nonetheless what you're hoping is that the current players understand what this is all about.
"Even when you think about the news we got this week [about losing injured starter Chris Carpenter for the season], he was somebody who represented the past, the current and the future as much as anyone. His leadership will be missed, but I think with the environment and the culture that he helped create over the last 10 years will have a lasting impact on our current club."
Rangers GM Jon Daniels has a slightly different take, focusing more on the on-field portion of the equation.
"I'd expect it will take a little time for the group to gel, but that's what Spring Training is for," Daniels wrote in an e-mail. "And there's an opportunity for guys to step up, take on new roles and express themselves in ways they may not have been able to previously. We obviously have great respect for Michael and his accomplishments here. But I've seen and heard some suggest we will miss his leadership, and I think that ignores the capabilities of the guys we've got. ... The biggest impact is going to be on the field. That's where it would be felt."
The Rangers, who will also be without Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli following their exits through free agency, will give youngsters like Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt a long look in camp. Not to mention that Texas has big-time starters at the positions Young most often played: Adrian Beltre at third, Elvis Andrus at shortstop, Ian Kinsler at second and Lance Berkman at designated hitter.
There is anecdotal evidence that not having a player of that magnitude doesn't have as much of an impact as might be supposed. And without minimizing Jones' contributions, most observers still see the Braves as a strong contender for the National League East title.
"When you lose a guy like Chipper, you're losing the leadership. That's for sure," said MLB Network analyst Mitch Williams. "But they have a guy there in Brian McCann who can easily pick up that torch. Chipper has been injured so often over the last few years that they're used to playing without him. Now they have to play without his presence. But like I said, McCann is a guy who can pick that up and go with it."
The Braves had the advantage of knowing well in advance that Jones was planning to hang 'em up. While unproven Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson will battle for playing time in place of Jones at third base, manager Fredi Gonzalez told reporters that he thinks the addition of Justin Upton in left field will help make up for the likely future Hall of Famer's production.
Tigers president, CEO and GM Dave Dombrowski pointed out that every situation is unique.
"It's an interesting question and I think every situation is different," Dombrowski said. "Even though there are some similarities, they all have their own personalities -- how they fit in with the ballclub, how the guys gel around them.
"I would say that when that [iconic] guy is gone, you can go in a couple different ways. One, is they're all looking, 'Where is that guy? He did this or that for us.' They're sort of grappling for how to make it happen. And then there are other circumstances where all of a sudden that guy is gone and young players or different players in the prime of their careers are ready to step up and take more of a leadership role. And that can be very beneficial to a team. So I think it's very dependent on the makeup of your club [and] who the [iconic] player was, and it can go in either direction."
Added Dodgers GM Ned Colletti: "It's tough replacing somebody like [Jones or Young]. I'm sure it was tough in Baltimore replacing a Cal Ripken, or in San Diego replacing Tony Gwynn, because they've been the constants. They've been somebody who's not only been in the room for a long time, but the centerpiece of the room for a long time in a lot of ways.
"So teams will go through an adjustment with that, where somebody else will step up and start to play that role. Atlanta's a really good club. They've been together for a long time, even though Chipper's obviously been there longer than anybody and has the status that he's richly earned.
"There's only one Chipper Jones. But that organization, the way they've been assembled and the continuity that exists in great measure throughout, it's not going to be impossible to overcome."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.