The Braves are 3-0. That’s great. It has exceeded everyone’s expectation for how this team, with almost a new roster, would do to start the season.
But they are doing it in spite of manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Yes, it only took three games to create a laundry list of items available to criticize the manager. Why do that though? The team has won, so who cares, right?
Well, there are logical questions to ask about how he has handled the lineup in the first three games of the season – strange things that just don’t make sense.
But again, they’re 3-0, so maybe Gonzalez is a genius regardless of how stupid his lineups may be on a daily basis.
Let’s start with opening day. First, the most shocking part of the lineup was that Christian Bethancourt hit fifth. Why? Sure, there are questions about who will hit behind Freddie Freeman and protect him in the order. But Bethancourt, a rookie who has questions about his bat?
Then there is the situation at third base, and make no mistake about it, this is a situation. Now, I know Chris Johnson did not do well against right-handed pitchers last season. He hit .231 against right-handers and .395 against left-handers. He should be in a platoon.
But Gonzalez did not let on in spring training that he would platoon Johnson. He talked about Alberto Callaspo and Kelly Johnson, two left-handed hitters, occasionally playing against tough right-handers. Gonzalez called it a “soft platoon,” to coin a new phrase in baseball.
It was a little bit of a surprise Monday that Johnson was benched in favor of Callaspo, especially since Johnson had hit .467 (7-15) against Marlins’ starter Henderson Alvarez in his career.
Johnson told reporters he actually thought he had been traded when he walked in and did not see his name in the starting lineup. Look, this guy signed a contract last year, albeit with a different front office. He was right to believe he would be in the lineup on opening day.
Gonzalez said he would play Johnson in the final two games of the season, which were both against right-handed pitchers. Tuesday Johnson had a double and drove in a run on Miami starter Mat Latos, a right-hander. But then, Gonzalez sat Johnson again in game three as the Marlins pitched right-hander Tom Koehler (who Johnson had a .313 batting average against), going instead with Callaspo.
The TV cameras showed Johnson on the bench during the game, and he looked upset. No one should be happy about not playing. It is assumed that Johnson will be in the game Friday when the Mets pitch lefty Jonathan Niese. But what will be the strategy moving forward with Johnson?
If you’re going to use Johnson against certain right-handers, wouldn’t you use him against pitchers he has had success against?
The Braves tried all winter to trade Johnson, but no team would take on that contract. He’s paid $6 million this season, $7.5 million next season, $9 million in 2017 and there’s a team option for 2018 for $10 million.
Truthfully, the Braves should play Johnson everyday just so he can hopefully rebound and hit more like he did two years ago when he batted .321. Then maybe some team would take a chance on him. If not, they’re going to be stuck with an expensive platoon player at an important position.
I’m not necessarily taking up for Johnson, but there should be a set strategy about using him. If you’re going to platoon at third base, fine, but why play him against Latos (a pitcher he had a .381 average against going into the game Tuesday) but not play him against Alvarez and Koehler, two pitchers he also had success against?
What exactly did Eric Young, Jr. do to get benched in game three? He was 1-4 with a double and a run scored in game one. Then Young got on base twice in game two with a RBI single and a walk. I thought the Braves would give the switch-hitter a chance to see if he could be the everyday player in center with Melvin Upton gone.
Young has hit better against left-handed pitchers as a right-handed batter in his career – a .261 average, compared to the .248 he’s hit as a left-handed batter against right-handed pitchers. That’s not a huge gap, particularly, for instance, compared to what Johnson’s splits were last season.
Young has speed. He had 30 stolen bases last season in only 316 plate appearances. So why not give him a chance to see if he can be a full-time leadoff man, giving your lineup speed at the top of the order? Instead in game three, Gonzalez moved Jace Peterson from the number two spot, to the leadoff position.
Gonzalez reportedly said he was considering using Cameron Maybin Friday for the home opener against the lefty. But Young has hit better in his career against lefties. And Maybin has hit better in his career against right-handed pitchers (a .248 average) than he’s done against left-handers (.242).
I’m anxious to see if Maybin can contribute, but Young deserves the chance to prove himself first. If Young struggles, then certainly go to a platoon. But the third game of the season, after your offense scores 12 runs, you shake it up like this?
And it’s not like the lineup was great Wednesday. The two runs came on one swing of the bat, A.J. Pierzynski’s two-run home run.
Gonzalez told the reporters he’s going to give Phil Gosselin a start Friday night against Niese, so that Peterson can get the night off. Why? Don’t we need to see if Peterson can be an everyday player? That’s ridiculous.
Gonzalez had an excuse last year for his lineup shuffling. No matter what he did or tried, nothing worked with that bunch. But it would probably be beneficial to at least give guys like Johnson and Young chances before you throw them into a platoon.
Lineup construction has long been a way to criticize Gonzalez, and his comments about his lineup, particularly considering what he said about Johnson, are bizarre. But you have to wonder if his comments in spring training about a couple of other topics made the front office ask, “Why did he say that?”
First, Gonzalez intimated that he might want to put Jose Peraza on the opening day roster. That was never going to happen. Everyone knew Peraza was going to need more time in the minor leagues. Peraza had only 44 games in Double-A last season. So that was weird for him to say that.
Then in mid-March, Gonzalez said Wandy Rodriguez would be the number four starter in the Atlanta rotation. What? That was never going to happen. Eric Stults was always considered the favorite to win the job in the rotation, and they knew it was going to be a gamble to see if Rodriguez could stay healthy.
But Gonzalez said it anyway. He shouldn’t have. He looked silly when Rodriguez was released at the end of spring training.
The Braves are 3-0. Again, that’s great. But let’s hope the manager doesn’t get in the way of this team being better than many believed it would be in the first place.
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 email him at email@example.com.
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