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Hal Bodley

Despite no Chipper, Gonzalez confident

Despite no Chipper, Gonzalez confident play video for Despite no Chipper, Gonzalez confident

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Start here: This is the best team Fredi Gonzalez has had as manager of the Marlins and now the Braves. Top to bottom, these Braves ooze with talent -- plenty to maybe unseat Washington as the National League East champion.

"Yes, it's the best team I've had here," Gonzalez said after some coaxing Thursday before a Spring Training game with the Phillies on Thursday.

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The hangover from the 2011 September collapse that cost the Braves an NL Wild Card berth and the nightmarish loss to the Cardinals in last year's Wild Card Game is behind them. Did someone say something about the infield fly rule?

"That was a lot easier to put behind than 2011," sighed Gonzalez, whose Braves squandered an 8 1/2-game September Wild Card lead, losing 18 of their last 26 games.

The Braves had home-field advantage against St. Louis in 2012's first one-game Wild Card playoff, but poor defense and the controversial infield fly call left them with a 6-3 defeat.

"Our sport is not made for a one-game playoff," said Gonzalez. "We did something we hadn't done all year: We made three errors, and it cost us five runs. You can talk about the infield fly and all that, but we made five errors and lost."

Now, with the offseason moves by general manager Frank Wren and the maturity of their young players, the Braves are loaded.

But when you look around their clubhouse, there's no Chipper Jones. The future Hall of Famer retired after last season, ending an epic 20-year career.

Wren, on paper, replaced Jones' bat when he signed free-agent outfielder B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract, then landed B.J.'s younger brother, Justin, in a seven-player deal with Arizona.

But I repeat: When you look around the clubhouse, something is missing. It's more than Jones' bat, it's his presence, the aura of his leadership.

That's what concerns me most about this team. Is there a veteran who can pull this juggernaut together?

"We've got a couple of guys in there [clubhouse] who are capable of stepping up and taking care of that," said Gonzalez. "Jason Heyward is one of those guys who can lead."

Heyward is just 23, but he won his first Gold Glove in 2012 and has shown leadership qualities more by the way he plays the game -- the Braves Way -- than by making clubhouse speeches.

When it comes to the rotation, Wren points to Tim Hudson as the leader.

"I think you have to have it," the GM said. "You have to have somebody who can speak from experience about the highs and lows. You want them to be able to keep everyone grounded and help them through those rough times. Huddy is the true leader of our pitching staff without a doubt."

Gonzalez puts it this way: "We often mistake leadership. It doesn't have to be a guy who yells and screams, but it can be somebody who plays the game the right way and can tell his teammates when they're not doing it correctly."

Gonzalez -- who took over for another icon, legendary manager Bobby Cox, after the 2010 season -- said Jones came into his own as the no-questions-asked team leader during the past two seasons.

"The thing I found about him is that he's a coach's son, so he respects the position of the coach and manager," Gonzalez said. "Whatever we asked him to do, he did it. There was no hesitation, no moaning or complaining. What else are the other guys going to say? Here is a future Hall of Famer doing the stuff we asked him to do, so everybody follows."

Gonzalez related a story from last September he said was typical Jones.

"I told him I was thinking about having a meeting with the team and talk about playing hard in September and how important the games are," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to run it by him first.

"Chipper said, 'I think this is a good time of the year for it, and it should be a good meeting.' He then looked at my lineup card, and pointing to it said, 'If this guy and this guy and this guy don't hit, we're screwed.' And he pointed to himself.

"That's what I'm going to miss -- the perspective that as a manager I could talk to one of my players that way and that he would give you an honest answer."

Gonzalez, 49, knows first-hand how difficult it is to fill the shoes of someone with a bigger-than-life stature. He went through that when Cox, whose 2,504 wins rank fourth on the all-time managerial list, stepped down.

It was a difficult assignment, but now beginning his third season, it's obvious he's much more comfortable in the role.

"The more you do this, the more comfortable you become," he said. "My goal as a manager is to try and get better from year to year. There's still more stuff ahead.

"Bobby Cox is our biggest fan. I got a text from him yesterday on the way home after we beat the Tigers. 'Great game, that's three in a row!' he texted. We see him every day at the ballpark. We still don't have him in uniform, but that's one of my goals -- to get him in uniform."

Going over the nuts and bolts, Gonzalez said he believes, "Offensively, we have a good club, but at the end of the day, our strength will be our starting rotation and our bullpen.

"We had to replace Chipper Jones, and I think with Justin Upton we did that. Yes, we have a good team."

Also at the end of the day -- or the season for that matter -- the question remains: Will they be able to replace Jones' leadership?

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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