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The Braves? They might start the season with only 10 peak players, assuming that bench candidates Diory Hernandez, 26, and Joe Mather, 28, make the club. That number ties them with the Yankees for the league's fewest, but there is a significant difference in the roles of the young players on each team. Aside from starters Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, the Yankees' 25-and-unders will most likely be marginal contributors. The Braves' will be Freeman and Heyward, three of their five starting pitchers (Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and rookie Mike Minor) and rookie closer Craig Kimbrel.
Not that the Braves are devoid of in-their-prime stars. They have a quartet of 26-to-32-year-olds who have been selected to a combined nine All-Star Games: catcher Brian McCann (27), centerfielder Nate McLouth (29), infielder Martin Prado (27) and Uggla (30), who has averaged 30.8 home runs in his five seasons in the majors. Still, the fact remains: The Braves' hopes in 2011 will largely rest upon players who are either rather old or rather young. If this is not Wren's ideal design, then it is the fruit of a philosophy his organization (which he joined in 1999, as the assistant G.M. to John Schuerholz) developed 20 years ago. The Braves' cadre of talented 25-and-unders is one outcome of its unwavering focus on scouting and development. Their refusal to behave like anything but the financially middle-class club they are means that they avoid locking themselves into long-term deals with peaking free agents. Instead, they prefer to address needs with slightly older players with shorter deals. The result of this approach, says Rangers G.M. Jon Daniels: "They can develop and win at the same time, which is the most challenging thing to do in the game."
"That's been the formula," says Gonzalez. "They keep injecting good young players into the mix of good, established veterans." Gonzalez was Cox's third base coach from 2003 through '06 and therefore was more familiar than any other managerial candidate with Atlanta's organizational philosophy. To the surprise of no one, he was hired shortly after Cox managed his last game, in the NLDS. This was no effort to shake up the status quo on a team that has gone 15 years without a World Series championship. In fact, the idea seems to have been to replace Cox with a 22-years-younger version of him. "A lot of my beliefs and a lot of the stuff I feel strongly about comes from him," says Gonzalez. "I think we're pretty close, personalitywise."
The Braves' veterans all seem to feel that way: Moylan, asked to describe how this spring training might be different, didn't mention his new manager until reminded of him. That group includes their longest-tenured player, the oldest and most accomplished of them all, and the one who led the lobbying for Gonzalez to succeed Cox. Chipper Jones, Wren says, is "the guy that transitions us from our last championship to our next one."
The left corner of his mouth still curls up when he speaks, in that old familiar way, but otherwise Jones finally looks his age. He will turn 39 on April 24, making him the senior Brave by more than a year. He's got six scarred-over holes in his left knee and three in his right. He is thickly built and stubbly now—15 seasons, an MVP award and a batting title removed from being that slim, smooth-faced rookie who played third base for the 1995 world champs and naturally assumed that there would be many more parades in his future.
That there have been none was one reason Jones decided over the winter not to retire, a move he had been considering before tearing his left ACL last August. That he truly believes there might be one this year was the other reason. And for that, Braves fans can, in part, thank the presence of Freeman and Heyward.
Now Jones sits in his corner locker in the Braves' Disney World clubhouse, his knee almost healed. A few lockers to his left, Freeman is holding up a new pair of spikes, just out of their shipping box, for the approval of Heyward across the room. "Whatever, they're still attached at the hip, man," Jones says of the idea that his youngest teammates are more independent now. "These guys want to get married and have kids, they'd better separate."
Just a joke, he makes clear. "There's nothing wrong with those two hanging out," he says. "I think they kind of have a friendly rivalry, such as what Andruw [Jones] and I had through our younger years. It's a good thing. A guy goes out and hits .300, hits 30 home runs and drives in 100 runs, the other guy wants to do the same thing."
You start to notice life cycles when you've played as long as Jones has. In some ways, though, Freeman's story is unique. His mother, Rosemary, died of melanoma in 2000, leaving her husband, Fred, to raise three boys of 16, 13 and 10. Freddie was the 10-year-old. In the melancholy time to follow, Fred, suddenly a single parent, worried about his sons' emotional well-being and their safety—particularly that of Freddie, who was too young to be left alone. So Fred, a partner in an accounting firm in Villa Park, Calif., would wait to take his lunch breaks until five to two, when his youngest son's school day was over. He would pick Freddie up, and the two would drive to Handy Park. For the next hour he would throw strike after strike to his son, who would meet the ball with a swing that grew prettier by the day, like those of his idols, Chili Davis and Garret Anderson. "First of all, he was safe, and I didn't have to worry about him for that hour," Fred recalls. "We didn't talk a lot. I just threw, and he'd hit, and then he'd go down the rightfield line, and I'd go down the leftfield line, and we'd throw all the balls into center and pick them up together. Day after day after day."
After batting practice Fred and his son would drive back to the accounting firm, where Freddie would do his homework in an empty office until it was time to go home for dinner. "He grew up very fast after his mom passed away," Fred says. "I couldn't be there to stand over him all the time, so he had to do some things on his own."