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Young Atlanta Braves look to forge franchise's new identity

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 12:25 AM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. - The Atlanta Braves, on their way to another early-spring, mid-morning practice, filed past the figure leaning on their dugout railing as if he were a standard piece of Florida scenery - a palm tree, maybe, or a golf cart. Clad in a polo shirt, khakis and loafers - no socks - the man paid the players no mind, either, instead launching into another story about the old days.

But to an outsider, the scene was jarring: The man in the street clothes was Bobby Cox, the Braves' manager for the previous 21 seasons, a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Still a ubiquitous presence at the team's spring training camp in his role as a consultant - thus, the lack of back-slapping greetings as the players passed by - Cox, 69, will still answer to "Hey, Skip." But seeing him out of uniform, on a baseball field, is a reminder of what a monumental change has taken place in Atlanta.

For the better part of two decades, the Braves' identity as a franchise was tied to a pair of towering triumvirates: Ace pitchers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux; and management figures Stan Kasten, the Braves' longtime team president; John Schuerholz, the general manager and chief architect of the team that won 14 straight division titles between 1991 and 2005; and Cox.

But with Cox's retirement in October, all of them have now moved on, and for the first time since the early 1990s - when that group first came together and built a quasi-dynasty ("quasi" in that those 14 straight division titles produced only one World Series title) - the Braves must forge a new identity.

"I think we're going to struggle for an identity, to be honest," said veteran reliever Peter Moylan. "It'll take us probably a month to establish it. It's the end of an era, but it doesn't mean it's the end of a team. The Braves didn't fall off the face of earth."

The man who is taking Cox's place knows only that the Braves' identity will not be him. Fredi Gonzalez, 47, was groomed as Cox's successor, spending four seasons on the latter's coaching staff before leaving to serve a 3½-year apprenticeship managing the Florida Marlins.

When the Braves launched their first managerial search in 21 years, Gonzalez - conveniently fired by the Marlins midway through last season - was the only man they interviewed.

"It's not football - it's not like I'm going to bring the West Coast 0ffense in, or run the option," Gonzalez said. "It's baseball, and there's really not that many ways to change it. Maybe I emphasize one area more than [Cox] does, but there's no big overhaul.

"The names have changed, but the philosophy is the same. That's what makes the transition so easy, so far. I left, and was gone for four years, and when I came back the same people were here. Continuity is big around here."

Indeed, when Schuerholz was ready to retire as GM in 2007, he simply moved upstairs into the president's job once held by Kasten - and had already groomed his own successor, his former assistant Frank Wren.

Wren, who helped return the Braves to the playoffs in 2010 after a five-year absence, was recently rewarded with a contract extension through 2013 season.

"I think the identity of this team is simply the Braves - that it's a rock-solid, stable organization: the Braves," Schuerholz said. "It's not about an individual, or several individuals. It's about an organization with a sustained goal of excellence. There's a consistency, and people who come here feel that and become part of it."

No disrespect to Schuerholz, but we would argue the 2011 Braves do, in fact, have a distinct identity, one that is built upon an enviable core of young talent.

Right fielder Jason Heyward, the runner-up for National League rookie of the year last season, and rookie Freddie Freeman, the front-runner to win the starting first base job - the two of them shared the cover of Sports Illustrated last week - are both 21 years old. Flame-throwing right-hander Craig Kimbrel, projected to be the team's closer, is 22.

Probable fifth starter Mike Minor is 23, fourth starter Tommy Hanson is 24, and third starter Jair Jurrjens is 25. A pair of relievers, lefty Jonny Venters and right-handed Kris Medlen are 25, while two all-star hitters, infielder Martin Prado and catcher Brian McCann, are 27.

Even more impressive: With the exception of Jurrjens, who came over in a trade as a 21-year-old, every one of those players is homegrown - drafted and/or developed by the Braves.

It's an echo of the franchise's mid-'90s glory days, when the farm system seemingly graduated at least one cornerstone position player into the Braves' starting lineup every year - Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko in 1994, Chipper Jones in 1995, Jermaine Dye in 1996, Andruw Jones in 1997.

"You can't count on other organizations to draft and develop players, and you're just going to cherry-pick them out of other organizations and expect to sustain a program that's consistent and reliable," Schuerholz said. "You've got to get the job done internally."

With Cox retired, and Chipper Jones in the winter of his career, what awaits might be the start of a new era for the Braves, maybe the Hanson-Jurrjens-Minor Era, or perhaps the Heyward-McCann-Freeman Era, or some mixture of the two.

"You always hope for that," Freeman said. "But we have to live in the here-and-now. We have a season to play for. We have to try to win ballgames and not worry about how we're going to be looked at in 10 years."

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