By Richard Cuicchi | May 22, 2016 at 09:17 PM EDT | No Comments
The Atlanta Braves fired its manager Fredi Gonzalez last week in a move in which he was made the scapegoat for a team that was playing 9-28 ball. But all the arrows shouldn’t have been pointed at Gonzalez. The NL East Division last-place team is in the midst of a rebuilding transition in which the roster was completely overhauled from just a few years ago. Frankly, the disheveled roster the team is fielding currently is the primary reason the team is doing their best imitation of the 1962 New York Mets which won only 40 games.
Gonzalez was metaphorically at the helm of a sinking ship whose deck hands were on their first voyage or were castoffs from their previous ships. The Braves team is a mixture of young, inexperienced pitchers and journeyman position players. Only first baseman Freddie Freeman can be considered a legitimate star on the team, and he’s the last holdover from the club that won the NL East Division in 2013.
Just a few seasons ago, the Braves featured a team under Gonzalez with as much potential as any in the major leagues. On a team that was largely sourced from its farm system by GM Frank Wren, they had rising stars like Freeman, Brian McCann, Jacob Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, and Evan Gattis. As for pitching, the Braves had developed some outstanding young arms such as Julio Teheran, Kris Medlin, Alex Wood, Mike Minor, and Craig Kimbrel, who became one of the best closers in baseball. It appeared as though the Braves were on the verge of having another dynasty team like the Braves of the 1990s.
The Braves had a second-place finish in 2014, although they did suffer a losing season with 79 wins. Braves management, under interim GM John Hart, decided over the winter of that year the team needed to re-make itself, similar to what the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros were in the process of doing. The Braves didn’t re-sign young players who were eligible for free agency and traded away others for prospects, supposedly as part of their plan to stock their farm system with a new crop of budding stars.
At about the same time, the Braves announced they would be building a new stadium in Atlanta for the 2017 season. That planned event essentially became the target for putting the re-built team in place.
Consequently, the 2015 team, and currently the 2016 team, became devoid of players who could actually contribute to winning games. Of the six starters used by the Braves this season, only two have more than 1-2 years of major league experience. As a group, they average only 25 years of age. Teheran is the only starting pitcher left from the young corps of a few years ago. On offense, the Braves have scored the least number of runs in the National League, over a 100 less than the league-leading Cardinals, and have the least number of total bases, almost one-third less than the league-leading Diamondbacks. They have hit only 18 home runs as a team, while Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets and Nolan Arenado of the Rockies each have 14 home runs individually.
Since Gonzalez took over from legendary Bobby Cox as manager of the Braves in 2011, his teams have posted one first-place finish, three second-place finishes, and a fourth-place finish. His overall record through 2015 was 425-385. That’s not the record of a bad manager.
However, it’s not unusual that managers of major league teams in rebuilding mode get the ax from management. Bo Porter of the Astros and Rick Renteria of the Cubs are the most recent examples. But Gonzalez had to know he was in a fairly tenuous situation. Yet there was never any evidence he gave up or slacked off in getting the team to be competitive every day. Even during last year’s losing season, Gonzalez got the diminished Braves off to a good start in April and May, before eventually succumbing to the rest of the division for a last-place finish. Yet with one quarter of the season under the belt already, the 2016 version of the team is currently on a pace to win only 40-45 games this season.
If the Braves’ front office already knew that Gonzalez was not going to be the 2017 Opening Day manager, why did they start this season with him? They probably they took advantage of his loyalty to the organization to shepherd what they figured would be a struggling team in 2016, while allowing the organization an opportunity to secure another skipper for the next year. The team’s poor performance likely pressured them to make the move with Gonzalez sooner.
Braves minor league manager, Brian Snitker, was promoted as the interim manager of the big league club. While he has been a rising star in the managerial ranks, it’s not clear he will be retained either as the permanent manager next year. The Braves have left open an option to find someone else.
It’s also not clear how the Braves will improve the team for the next season’s opening of the long-awaited new ballpark. The pitching-heavy group of prospects they accumulated in the rebuilding process will still be untested. However, they could use some of them in trades for more veteran players who can be immediately productive. They could start that process later this year at the July 31 trade deadline, when major league teams starting juggling rosters again. They should be an active participant in offseason player acquisitions. In any case, they have their work cut out for them to field a competitive team for next year.
It’s a shame “good guys” of the game like Gonzalez sometimes get treated like he did. With Gonzalez’ firing, the Braves’ front office deflected the attention from themselves for the team’s poor performance going back to last season. It remains to be seen whether they can recover in time to meet their expectations for next season.