Braves should be playing Bethancourt

The Braves need to play Christian Bethancourt every day for the remainder of the season.

Those who are making a case in support of Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez believe he should simply not be blamed for the Braves falling apart, that the front office did not give him a chance with the many moves that have drastically changed the roster in the second half of the season.

“You can’t go to the horse race without any horses” is the way one fan put it on Twitter. Well, sure, this was a transition year and the expectations were low. But did anyone really expect the Braves to have the worst stretch in Atlanta’s history?

Entering Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia, the Braves were 13-41 in their last 54 games. That’s one-third of the season. That’s a .241 winning percentage. That’s just awful.

To think that this stretch is worse than anything we saw in the late-1970s or the late-1980s, when there was some terribly bad baseball, is too much to fathom.

Gonzalez got a pass last year when the general manager was blamed instead for the team falling apart. He got a pass in the other years for the second half collapses. But for him not to get some of the blame for the worst stretch in Atlanta Braves history is a mistake.

Oh, those late-season collapses are an issue. Since Gonzalez took over in 2011, the Braves are a combined 50-71 after August 31, including the postseason. That’s a .421 winning percentage.

So this is the manager the Braves want in the dugout when they get good again? Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.com reported Tuesday that he’s “been hearing all season that players are frustrated with Gonzalez, that he essentially has lost the clubhouse.” This is not shocking, but it is scary considering how many new players are in Atlanta’s clubhouse.

Then there’s this. Young Christian Bethancourt was expected to be the starting catcher to start the season, but Gonzalez pulled the plug early when Bethancourt struggled and veteran A.J. Pierzynski did better than expected. The Braves sent Bethancourt to Triple-A in June, where he hit .327 in 52 games.

Bethancourt was called back up August 24 and Gonzalez said then Bethancourt would get “regular” playing time. This was sorely needed, since Bethancourt is only 24 years old and the Braves need to see if he can be a starting catcher moving forward, especially with Pierzynski turning 39 years old this December.

Well, Bethancourt has started about half the games played since he came back. He’s struggling at the plate, but how can he prove himself when Gonzalez will not give him the regular playing time? That was an issue before Bethancourt was sent down, as Gonzalez did not start Bethancourt in more than two games in a row at any point before his demotion. It’s happened only once since Bethancourt returned, when he played in just three games in a row before being replaced again by Pierzynski.

This is a huge mistake. Why play a veteran catcher when you need to see what the young player can do? Is Gonzalez trying to make his won-loss record look better? It’s too late for that. With the Braves way out of the race, now is the time to test Bethancourt to see if he can be productive with regular – meaning everyday – playing time.

Maybe Bethancourt is not an everyday catcher, but to not give him a full chance to prove it one way or the other is ridiculous. Even if the Braves have decided he’s not, wouldn’t it be advantageous to play Bethancourt anyway to increase his trade value? He won’t have much value now with the impression that the manager just doesn’t like him.

Gonzalez has been criticized before for his use of the pitching staff and his bizarre lineup construction, but the Bethancourt situation proves once again that some of the blame for the Braves’ struggles falls right at his doorstep. Maybe it’s just another reason to think Rosenthal’s report is spot on. Either way, Gonzalez’s future remains a pressing issue for the Braves.

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 thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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