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Braves prepare to start the Fredi Gonzalez era

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POSTED: February 15, 2011 11:35 a.m.

The first day of spring training will seem a little strange for the Atlanta Braves.

Bobby Cox won't be there ahead of everyone else, eager to get started on a new season.

"We're used to seeing him there at 7:30 in the morning with his spikes on," pitcher Tim Hudson said. "I know we're all going to miss that. But we'll see him around a lot. He's a baseball man, and he's an Atlanta Brave through and through. He'll always be a part of this club."

He's just not the manager anymore.

When pitchers and catchers take the field Tuesday in Kissimmee, Fla., it will be the first time since 1990 that someone other than Cox is running things. He retired after last season and quickly handed off the job to his former third-base coach, Fredi Gonzalez, who knows he's got some big spikes to fill.

"There's going to be some hurdles. There's going to be some stuff that you go through," the new manager said. "That's all part of it. But I feel comfortable that this organization has always put winners on the field. I feel comfortable that's going to continue."

Indeed, the transition from Cox to Gonzalez was about as smooth as one of these moves can be. Cox announced he was retiring more than a year ahead of time, giving everyone plenty of time to get used to the idea. Gonzalez was fired as Florida's manager last June, freeing him up to take over the Atlanta job.

He was the only candidate seriously considered by the Braves.

"The situation here is so different," said Gonzalez, who served as the Braves third-base coach from 2003-06. "I was here before. I was already a part of this. It wasn't like Bobby was fired. It wasn't like they ran Bobby out of here. Bobby retired. And Bobby is still a part — a big part — of this organization."

Cox now serves as a special adviser to the Braves, and he plans to spend time on the field during spring training, helping where he can. Over the winter, he talked to Gonzalez by phone almost every day, and they usually saw each other two or three times a week.

"Bobby wants us to succeed," Gonzalez said. "He loves this organization like it's a part of his family."

Still, there are always changes when a new manager takes over, and that will certainly be the case with Gonzalez. The most noticeable difference will likely be the way he structures the workouts before the start of Grapefruit League games.

While Cox preferred to conduct most of the drills in the main stadium at Disney's Wide World of Sports, Gonzalez plans to fully utilize the back fields.

"That's probably the biggest thing you're going to see," he said. "We can get in some more reps, more work, and probably take a little less time."

Cox's players always reveled in the leisurely pace of his early spring training schedule, which usually got them off the field by noon and allowed them to spend the afternoon playing golf or taking in the amusement parks with their families. In that respect, Gonzalez doesn't plan to alter things too much.

"You're not going to all of a sudden see us running 6-minute miles or running the stairs," he said. "Obviously, Bobby made a big impact in my baseball thinking. There's a lot of good stuff that's been done here that I carried over with the Marlins. It's going to continue to be that way because it's been successful.

"But again," he quickly added, "we're two different people."

The Braves added slugging second baseman Dan Uggla to their lineup, and they're counting on the return of 38-year-old third baseman Chipper Jones, attempting a comeback from major knee surgery. But many of the key positions are held down by younger players.

Right fielder Jason Heyward is coming off a strong rookie season. Freddie Freeman will take over at first base after shining in Triple-A last year. The closing job could be shared by second-year lefty Jonny Venters and hard-throwing right-hander Craig Kimbrel, who's only 22.

"Whatever changes (Gonzalez) makes are probably changes that were needed," Hudson said. "There's some young guys on the club now. A little more structure for those guys would never hurt. At the same times, we've got some veterans who've been around a while. We know what it takes to get ready. If things stay the same, that's OK with us too."

 

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