Why the Braves believe they can replace Freddie Freeman’s leadership

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

NORTH PORT, Fla. – If you’re searching for a fitting sign of Freddie Freeman’s status around the Braves, Travis d’Arnaud provided it during the first week of camp.

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On the morning after the Braves traded for Matt Olson, which signaled Freeman’s departure, those with cameras and microphones swarmed d’Arnaud in the Braves’ clubhouse. Asked about Freeman’s impact on the organization, d’Arnaud began his answer with this:

“Well normally, not all these cameras are on me.”

Freeman served as the Braves’ unquestioned leader for more than a decade. He was the face of the franchise – the spokesman, the icon, the star.

But he’s gone.

Who are the leaders in that clubhouse now?

“Me. I’m just kidding. All of us,” outfielder Ronald Acuña said through interpreter Franco García. “We have really good harmony within this clubhouse, and everyone steps up as a leader here.”

“I think in this clubhouse, we have a bunch of different leaders and a bunch of followers,” left-handed reliever Tyler Matzek said. “It’s crazy to say that. Not everybody is a leader at the exact same time that they’re a follower.”

“I think it’s going to be not guys you’d necessarily expect, but (Travis d’Arnaud and Dansby Swanson) do a good job of kind of rallying everyone and keeping us together,” starting pitcher Ian Anderson said. “I think it’s kind of more by committee now.”

The Braves, as Anderson mentioned, are leading by committee nowadays. They are relying on the sum of their parts. Instead of looking to one person for leadership, they’re evenly distributing those responsibilities among themselves.

Freeman ranks ninth in Braves history and 17th among active players with 1,565 games played. Acuña, Swanson, d’Arnaud, Matzek, Anderson and others took different paths to the big leagues, but all experienced one constant when they arrived: Freeman.

He was not a rah-rah leader. He set an example. As Matzek put it, Freeman’s leadership sent this message: “Hey, this is how we do business around here. We show up every day, we plan to play 162, we take care of our business, we’re always on the field.”

That the Braves will have a more even distribution of leadership throughout their clubhouse might not be so bad.

“The crazy and the hard thing to do here is we’re playing major-league baseball,” Matzek said. “It’s a tough thing to do, and then it’s even tougher when all this pressure is put on top of you as a leader to, ‘Hey, you have to take care of 25 other guys.’ The fact that we’re able to distribute that across so many good personalities and so many good dudes, I think it just takes the weight off of everybody and kind of distributes it across the whole team.”

What might help these Braves: They’ve experienced it all over the past few years. They understand heartbreak and triumph, failure and success. They overcame injuries and odds on the way to winning a World Series a year removed from a gut-wrenching loss in the NLCS.

Oh, and they dealt with COVID-19 and the shortened 2020 season, and the restrictions that came with it. Some of that lingered into 2021. It’s been a wild two years for this group.

“Some guys that have played 10 years, they’ve never experienced anything like they have the past two years,” Anderson said. “It’s going to help a ton.”

Added Acuña: “I think just with experience, just everything you kind of go through throughout the years, that helps. I think that the other part of that is anyone can be a leader on the team, but to be honest, I’m really not focusing on that. I’m just focused on playing baseball.”

Part of being a great leader, Matzek said, is taking ideas from everyone. So even a guy like A.J. Minter – whom Matzek described as quiet – has the floor if he says something.

Something d’Arnaud mentioned the first week of camp: When Freeman spoke, everyone turned to listen. He might be gone, but that doesn’t mean others won’t command the same respect.

“I think if anyone were to speak up, there’s just a ton of respect in this locker room,” Anderson said. “There’s not any bravado, not any egos that are going to be like, ‘Oh, that guy doesn’t deserve to say anything.’ We’ve been through this together so I think at this point, if anyone were to step up and say something, it would carry some weight.”

This could speak volumes about the Braves’ culture. “That’s exactly it,” Matzek said. “(General manager Alex Anthopoulos) does a great job figuring out first off, who’s a good person, and second, who’s a good baseball player.”

“I’d go grab a beer with any one of these guys,” Matzek said. “They’re all just good human beings first off.”

As opening day nears, you’ll hear plenty of talk about whether Matt Olson can replace Freeman’s production. That’s at least quantifiable. But how do you evaluate something you can’t see, something that isn’t tied to a statistic?

That’s a bit more difficult. Can the Braves replace Freeman’s leadership?

They believe they can, but we’ll have to see. No one knows how this is going to go, who will step up or what will occur.

“A year from now when we’re sitting here, I’ll tell you how it went,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “But I have every confidence that room in there is going to be fine.”

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