Replacing stars, legends no easy task
Difficult process gives teams tough decision to stay in house or make big moves
Not only did the Braves assemble potentially the best outfield in the Major Leagues this offseason by adding brothers B.J. and Justin Upton, but in doing so, they likely eased the pressure on Chipper Jones' successor.
At the end of last season, one would have figured the main story entering Spring Training for the Braves this year would be centered on Jones' replacement at third base. Instead, the focus seems to be on the Uptons and Atlanta's star-studded outfield, allowing newly acquired third baseman Chris Johnson to settle into the hot corner without a whole lot of fanfare.
Replacing Jones, who spent his entire 19-year career with the Braves, still won't be an easy task for Johnson, but he is just one of a number of players looking to fill some big shoes this spring. While some teams -- such as the Rangers and Rays -- stayed in-house to replace their star players, others -- such as the Braves and Angels -- revamped their rosters via free agency and trades to compensate.
Atlanta started its overhaul by signing free agent outfielder B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million deal to replace free agent Michael Bourn, who later signed with the Indians. Two months later, the club acquired Upton's brother, Justin, along with Johnson in a trade with the D-backs that sent Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and a trio of prospects to Arizona.
"It has been an exciting offseason," said veteran pitcher Tim Hudson, now the longest-tenured player on the Braves' roster. "We brought in a lot of talent. We felt like we had a really good team last year, and I feel like we've improved in a number of areas. I'm excited."
Prior to the January trade, Prado had been the front-runner to take over at third base. Now, the responsibility likely falls on Johnson, with Juan Francisco also in the running. Johnson, 28, hit .281 with 15 homers and 76 RBIs in 136 combined games between Houston and Arizona last season.
As Johnson took grounders at the team's first workout last week, it still felt surreal to not have Jones present in a Braves uniform.
"You kind of expected him to come around the corner," said Johnson, who played collegiately at Stetson University where Jones' father served as an assistant. "I wanted to turn around and ask [Chipper] some questions. I like to pick his brain."
While nobody else quite has the pressure of replacing a future Hall of Famer and long-time face of the franchise, there are plenty of other players looking to step up and ease the loss of a marquee player.
Take Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings, who will shift from left field to center field in B.J. Upton's absence. Tampa Bay reconstructed its outfield with players already on its roster, with Matt Joyce expected to take over in left and Ben Zobrist likely starting in right.
"I don't think we're going to miss much," Rays outfield coach Dave Martinez said. "B.J. did have a stronger arm, but as far as covering ground and playing center field, I think Desmond is ready for the challenge. For me, he is a center fielder, so it should be no problem."
It's not always that easy. Some teams went out and spent substantial money to fill needs, while others enter Spring Training with those vacated spots still up for grabs.
In the American League West alone, the Rangers stayed within the organization to replace slugger Josh Hamilton, while the Angels searched anywhere and everywhere (including Texas) to compensate for the losses of pitchers Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, as well as outfielder Torii Hunter.
Though the Rangers signed catcher A.J. Pierzynski to replace Mike Napoli (who left for Boston), they are looking at the homegrown trio of Leonys Martin, Craig Gentry and Julio Borbon for the vacancy left by Hamilton. Borbon and Gentry are proven Major Leaguers, but Martin is the main reason Texas didn't pursue a free-agent outfielder.
Martin, 24, signed a five-year, $15.5-million contract with the Rangers after defecting from Cuba in May 2011. The all-around talent flashed his potential in 2012, hitting .359 with a .422 on-base percentage in 55 games at Triple-A Round Rock. Unfortunately, he missed one month with a torn ligament in his left thumb, then spent six weeks as a reserve with the Rangers while Mitch Moreland was on the disabled list.
"We're going to put him out there [in Spring Training] and find out everything we can about him," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He's got talent. This kid just needs to relax and play and he'll answer every single question that needs to be answered."
As for the rival Angels, they pieced together a new starting rotation by acquiring Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas in separate trades, and signing Joe Blanton. They also shored up their bullpen by signing high-caliber free agents Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett.
The biggest splash, of course, was signing Hamilton to form -- along with Peter Bourjos in left and Mike Trout in center -- possibly the best defensive outfield in the Majors.
"We just made a decision in saying we have to get a couple relievers and a couple [starting] pitchers and try to take care of business then," Angels owner Arte Moreno said. "Then if I want to bust the budget like I did last year, I just say, 'If there's a crack in the door, and we have a shot at getting one of the best players ... .'"
And that's exactly what the Angels did.
So while teams such as the Angels and Braves aggressively restocked via big moves this offseason, others such as the Rangers and Rays both plan to stay in contention despite mostly standing pat in the wake of losing some serious star power.
"Teams lose leaders all the time," Washington said. "We've always been a group that's been able to adjust to whatever is thrown at us, and we'll adjust now."
It may just take some added adjustment to get used to seeing their five-time All-Star in Angels red.
However, nothing compares to the adjustment everyone will need to get used to seeing anyone other than Chipper manning third base in Atlanta.