Braves need to start over

The Braves are in serious danger of not making the playoffs. Will there be accountability? Well, there should be. Changes are needed.

The year was 1985. The Braves had just finished a disappointing season. They had signed Bruce Sutter, and the big hitters named Dale Murphy and Bob Horner were in the lineup. But the season was a disaster.

At the end of that season, Braves’ owner Ted Turner wanted to bring Bobby Cox home. He had fired Cox four years earlier, but Turner always liked Cox and knew Cox had maintained his home in Atlanta.

But there was one problem. Cox was managing the Toronto Blue Jays and they won the American League East. So Turner was worried if he waited on Cox, his former employee might change his mind if the Blue Jays won the World Series.

So Turner hired Chuck Tanner to be his manager instead. Tanner had just been fired as the manager in Pittsburgh, six years after leading the Pirates to the World Series. Tanner had played for the Braves in Milwaukee, so it was like a homecoming for Tanner in a way.

Then after the Blue Jays were eliminated from the playoffs by the Royals (who, by the way, were led by general manager John Schuerholz), Turner still wanted Cox to join the organization. So Turner offered Cox the general manager’s role, making him the man in charge of the Atlanta Braves.

That’s the last time the Braves started a season with a new general manager and a new manager. It was 29 years ago. Now, the Cox-Tanner marriage lasted only two-and-a-half years, as Cox fired Tanner in May, 1988. Two years after that, Cox would replace Russ Nixon and stay in the Atlanta dugout for the next 20 seasons.

But it’s been that long since the Braves, in effect, started over. Cox rebuilt the farm system as the head of the organization. He placed a premium on pitching and improved the talent level. The results were magical, as the Braves won 14 division titles from 1991 through 2005.

It’s possible the Braves could be going down that same road, needing a complete overhaul of the two main positions in the organization. Like the 1985 season, this 2014 season has been a disaster. Yes, the Braves are only one game over .500, so they’ve still had a winning season. Yes, they are still mathematically alive in the playoff race, so you can’t count them out just yet.

But they just got swept by the worst team in baseball. The Braves have been awful since the All-Star Break (23-31) and horrid in September (3-9). Since the 17-7 start in April, Atlanta is 58-67.

This season has been a complete embarrassment. Yes, that’s not too strong a word. It might be one thing if there was not talent on this team, but there is. We all know the problem is with the offense. The pitching has been really solid. But this team can’t hit. The offense is abysmal. But don’t think there’s not talent on this roster and in this lineup. There is, but as a team it’s been pretty rotten.

Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward are good offensive players. But there is no leadoff man on this team. Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons have been horrible since the All-Star Break. And we all know about center field and the gigantic disaster that’s been in place since B.J. Upton walked in the door.

This lineup has simply been a complete failure. It has produced the second-worst run total in the major leagues.

The Braves are still in the race, at least technically. They are four games back of the second wildcard spot with 13 games to play. They start a 10-game homestand Monday with the NL East-leading Washington Nationals in town. But Atlanta would have to go on a tremendous run to even have a chance, particularly with one additional team, Milwaukee, in front of them in the standings.

It looks like this team is not going to make the playoffs. And there is no reason to blame this on the injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy from March. They were going to be in the rotation until they blew their elbows out for the second time in spring training. This is all about the pathetic offense that has caused this team to be on the brink of a losing record.

So what’s going to happen? Well, if it’s the offense, the hitting coaches should just be blamed, right? It must be Greg Walker’s fault, and Scott Fletcher is his assistant so let’s blame him, too. But if the Braves think they can just fire Walker and Fletcher and everything will be just fine, they’re nuts.

First of all, this is not Walker’s fault. Sure, he may shoulder some of the blame, but by all accounts he’s an excellent hitting coach. Walker is well-liked in the clubhouse and has done a good job. The results, however, have not been there. And that does put him in serious jeopardy of losing his job.

But this story is deeper than that. Firing Walker and bringing in someone else is not enough. This season’s disappointment is an organizational failure – from the construction of the roster to the implementation of the daily lineups. And that means the blame should lie at the doorstep of general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez.

This team has no leaders. There are no veterans to act as captains on this roster. Brian McCann and Tim Hudson were allowed to leave last winter as free agents, so the team desperately needed an experienced voice to lend support.

Think about this. Remember when John Schuerholz took over as the Braves’ general manager before the 1991 season? He brought in veterans Sid Bream and Terry Pendleton to help the young core of players (David Justice, Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Jeff Blauser) on the roster. It was a perfect mix. And don’t forget veteran Charlie Leibrandt, whom Bobby Cox had brought in a year earlier to lead a very young starting rotation.

There is no one like those players on this roster. Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang are both veteran pitchers, but they were brought in during spring training and are only here for one season. They can’t be leaders. Gerald Laird is a backup catcher, so that’s not where you get your leadership from. This team had no one to rally it and it never created a personality.

That’s on Wren. It’s his job to construct the roster. He should have brought in some veterans, and I’m not talking about Ryan Doumit. And go back a year ago. The decision to bring in the Upton brothers has been a huge mistake. Sure, Justin has done well at the plate, but B.J. cancels him out with the nightmare two seasons he’s had. It was a good idea to put the two brothers together to see if it would make this team better. It just didn’t work.

To have B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla on the payroll, which is essentially ‘dead money,’ is all on Wren. That’s 25% of your payroll going to players who aren’t helping out a lick.

Wren is like all general managers. He’s going to have his good moves and his bad ones. Wren should be applauded for bringing in Santana and Harang as he did in March. He found some very good pitching finds, like David Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro. The trade for Jordan Walden was tremendous. And yes, Wren should be applauded for signing Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman to long-term contracts.

The Uggla trade was a good decision. No one would have believed Uggla would have completely collapsed. But it’s still on Wren. It’s just a move that had good intentions but did not work out.

Along with the Upton and Uggla mistakes, think back to the additions Wren made in previous years. Signing Derek Lowe was a huge miscalculation, and the acquisition of Kenshin Kawakami was laughable. Giving Chris Johnson a long-term contract earlier this year was unnecessary, and it’s arguable whether he should have waited on giving a long-term deal to Simmons.

The contracts of Lowe, Kawakami, Uggla and B.J. Upton total around $220 million.

Here’s the other thing that is a negative for Wren: the farm system is in rough shape. Don’t be fooled with anything said by anyone or anything that is written. This organization does not have the talent level in the minor leagues that it’s had in the past. In fact, it arguably has the worst talent as a whole that it’s had in two decades.

If this was one of those situations where Wren could say, “Well, we’ve got a lot of talent on the way,” then that may save him. But the talent on the farm is just not there.

There is no Julio Teheran or Alex Wood-like talent for the rotation. Lucas Sims may be good, but he’s not at the prospect level those two were a few years ago. Jose Peraza will take over next season at second base, but he’s about it. There is no Freddie Freeman or Jason Heyward on the horizon.

Of course, Wren could say, “Well, it’s a young team and we’ve got to be patient with them.” Okay, well then why did this same team, this same lineup, win 96 games last season?

And look, Wren has been the general manager for seven years. The Braves have won one division title and have not won a playoff series under his watch. Combine that with the farm system being in sad shape and Wren’s resume does not look very good.

Wren is under contract for one more season. He got that undisclosed deal back in spring training, as did Gonzalez. But if one is going to be fired, the other one should be as well. You can’t blame either completely for what’s happened. They deserve to share the blame.

But really, if the Braves fired Wren, why would they want a new general manager to inherit a manager that will be on thin ice next season and who will have an expiring contract? And if they kept Wren but fired Gonzalez, why would they want Wren to hire the next manager when Wren may then be the one on thin ice if he’s granted more time as the GM?

Gonzalez does deserve blame. When he put B.J. Upton in the leadoff role, he left Upton in there too long. Sure, not having a true leadoff man is rough, but Gonzalez’s lineup changes were a disaster. And putting Upton in the lineup day after day was ridiculous. Upton should have been benched at the All-Star Break when Uggla got released.

Gonzalez should be blamed for his hideous use of the bullpen early in his tenure. He overworked Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters to where both had to have Tommy John surgery. Those who joked about “Everyday” Johnny Venters should be ashamed. That young man will have his third elbow surgery soon and may never pitch again.

And mostly, Gonzalez provided no leadership when he found his club had no players that qualified as leaders. He should have taken a sterner role with some of his players this year when there were no older players around to do it. Chipper Jones was gone, and his absence as the leader in the clubhouse has been a huge void. That’s when a manager has to step in and provide it if there’s no one else there.

While it was occasionally mentioned that the Braves had one of the best regular season records around since Gonzalez took over for Cox in 2011, that’s not the entire picture. In that first season, the Braves choked in September and went 9-18 to not make the playoffs. It was the biggest collapse in National League history. Then in 2012, the Braves lost the one-game wildcard play-in game to the Cardinals, a team with six fewer wins in the regular season.

Then last season, after winning the NL East, the Braves lost in the first round to the Dodgers. And the lingering memory of that series will be closer Craig Kimbrel with his hands on his hips as Gonzalez refused to bring him in, only to watch David Carpenter give up the game-winning and series-winning home run to Jose Uribe.

This organization needs to start over. It’s not in good shape. Sure, there is a young core. But think about this. The center field situation is going to have to be settled this winter. There’s no way B.J. Upton can return in 2015. The corner outfielders are back next season but both Heyward and Justin Upton can leave after 2015. Unless Evan Gattis is moved to left from behind the plate, there is no clear cut replacement for either player.

Maybe one – Heyward or Justin Upton – will be re-signed. But both will want close to $20 million per season. Will the Braves want to make that commitment to either player? Probably not.

They probably want the Upton chapter of this organization’s history to be finished as soon as possible. They probably need to offer Justin a contract extension, and if he doesn’t sign it then trade him to help replenish the farm system.

Heyward will be a trickier situation. He has not developed into the five-star player most envisioned when he came up. Heyward has talent, but what happened to the power? Are the Braves going to pay close to $20 million for a player that can’t even hit 15 home runs a season?

The infield is more set. Peraza will take over at second, with Freeman, Simmons and Johnson locked in for a few more years. Expect Gattis to be traded with Christian Bethancourt ready to take over behind the plate. If Gattis, B.J. Upton and either Justin Upton or Heyward are dealt, it will be an active offseason regardless of who the general manager is for this team.

But the pitching will be a concern. Teheran, Mike Minor and Alex Wood will return. There is no guarantee about Medlen or Beachy. David Hale could join the rotation, but don’t expect much internal help. They’ll have to get at least one starting pitcher and maybe two this winter.

With so many questions on the agenda, how can the Braves, specifically team CEO Terry McGuirk and team president John Schuerholz, allow Wren to make these tough decisions? Why should Wren have the honor of shaping this franchise two years before it moves into an expensive, new stadium when his poor decisions have caused the current status to be so shaky?

This organization needs a redo. It needs to start over. Just like when Cox replaced John Mullen and Tanner replaced Bobby Wine, a new team needs to be in place moving forward. Maybe the team will surprise all of us in the last two weeks of the season and make a late push, but why should we believe that will happen?

They just got swept by the worst team in baseball. The Texas Rangers have Triple-A players filling out their lineup with numerous injuries to their star players. Yet, they beat the Braves three straight games to show how bad this has gotten. It’s become a nightmare, and maybe in two weeks things will start to change to wipe away all of the bad memories.

McGuirk told the AJC a few weeks ago there will be accountability. Well, we’ll see, won’t we? We’ll see.


Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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