Atlanta's front office should not wait to let Gonzalez go

The Braves don't need to wait any longer. It's time for Fredi Gonzalez to go.

The rumors are getting loud. Wednesday two national reporters – Joel Sherman and Bob Nightengale – reported the Braves are discussing whether to fire manager Fredi Gonzalez.

Well, maybe it’s more appropriate to label it as ‘when’ to fire Gonzalez, the Braves’ manager since 2011.

Then later Wednesday, Jeff Schultz of the AJC wrote a piece claiming the Braves’ front office needed to look in the mirror. That came one day after beat writer David O’Brien vehemently defended Gonzalez in his blog.

Let’s not bury the lead here. Gonzalez is not going to be the manager of the Braves when they open the new park next April. It’s just not going to happen. His resume is too spotted, or downright bad, to even have that as a consideration.

So why wait? Why delay the inevitability of Gonzalez’s dismissal?

Is it because Gonzalez is a nice guy?

Haven’t we gone through this before with the Mark RIcht situation? Certain writers were late to the party recognizing a change was needed in Athens. What is needed now to prove to some that Gonzalez’s departure is likely long overdue?

Sure, Gonzalez is a nice guy. But this is not about that. This is about when is the best time to make a change. The Braves have played one-sixth of the season, 27 games. They are 7-20, on pace for a 42-120 record. They have a lot of baseball left, and they must stop the bleeding.

Why not just wait until the end of the season and then fire Gonzalez? Well, why would you want a lame duck in charge of your team? Why would you want this man, who has mismanaged the bullpen and young pitchers for years, in control when everyone will know he’s not going to make it anyway?

You don’t. That’s the main reason he’s got to go – and now.

Is the front office surprised by this awful start? Yes, I think so. They hoped the team would, at the least, be better than last year’s team. Maybe it will be in the end, but right now it’s a horrible baseball team. This is the difference between being bad, which would be like an 11-16 record, and being horrible at 7-20.

But this season, this bad start, is simply the last nail in the coffin to Gonzalez’s resume that is simply not very impressive. How many times can we say, “It’s not his fault?”

-          In 2011, Gonzalez’s first season, the Braves were 80-55 entering September with an 8.5 game lead in the wild card standings. The Braves then went 9-18 to finish 89-73 and fell one game short of the St. Louis Cardinals for the wild card to miss the playoffs.

-          His 2011 bullpen was overused, as Craig Kimbrel (79 games), Jonny Venters (85 games) and Eric O’Flaherty (78 games) combined to average 80.6 games pitched for the season. Venters has had two Tommy John surgeries since, while O’Flaherty has had one. Neither has ever been the same.

-          In 2012, the Braves were the main wild card team and hosted St. Louis, but the Cardinals won the playoff 6-3 in a game remembered for the infield fly rule play.

-          In 2013, the Braves won the NL East with a 96-66 record. However, a 13-14 record in September lost the home field advantage in the playoffs to the Cardinals. Instead of playing the wild card winner, the Braves matched up against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

-          In game four of that series in Los Angeles, down 2-1 in the series, the Braves were up 3-2 in the bottom of the 8th when David Carpenter gave up a two-run home run to Juan Uribe. Craig Kimbrel was in the bullpen with his hands on his hips wanting to come in, when Gonzalez elected to stick with Carpenter instead.

-          In 2014, with a team expected to be a World Series contender, the Braves flopped to a 79-83 record that resulted in the dismissal of general manager Frank Wren in September. Gonzalez was salvaged and kept as a new front office, led by John Hart and John Coppolella, took over.

-          In 2015, the Braves had their worst season since 1990 with a record of 67-95.

-          In 2016, the Braves are 7-20 and have had losing streaks of nine and eight games. The Braves are 12 games out of first place and have the worst record in baseball.

Here are the records that show how bad this latest stretch has been for the Braves.

-          The Braves were 42-42 after last year’s game on July 7. Since then, they are 32-73, an embarrassing .305 winning percentage.

-          Since the start of the 2014 season, the Braves are now 153-198, a winning percentage of .436.

-          The Braves won the NL East in 2013, but in September the team struggled with a 13-14 record. Since September 1, 2013, the Braves are now 166-212, a .439 winning percentage.

-          From 2011 through 2015, the Braves are 177-177 after the All-Star Break.

O’Brien wrote in his Tuesday blog (titled, “Fire Fredi? No one could succeed with this roster”) that, “If management decides to fire Fredi Gonzalez soon, such as after this trip, it will be one of the more blatant cosmetic, fan-appeasing dismissals in recent memory. Scapegoating, plain and simple.”

Then Schultz wrote in his Wednesday column (titled, “It’s about time Coppolella, Hart take ownership of Braves’ problems”) that, “They’re not 7-20 because they have a bad manager, They’re 7-20 because they have a bad team.”

Schultz continued, “The debate here isn’t whether the Braves are having a horrible season – they are – but rather what should have been expected. It has been an embarrassing year for the organization only because it was an embarrassing roster put together by first-year general manager John Coppolella and his quasi-mentor, John Hart.”

Well, I disagree. The Braves are 7-20, but they should not be this bad. This is the difference between bad and horrible. Bad would be 11-16, and that might be expected and almost palatable. But being 12 games out on Cinco de Mayo?

The hope was the Braves would be better in 2016 than they were in the 67-95 season in 2015. That means a 70-win season would be better. Then the hope was that in 2017, their first season in Sun Trust Park, the Braves would be even better than they were in 2016 and hopefully compete for a wildcard spot. But obviously, with the start to this season, that entire plan is in jeopardy.

Gonzalez, with a roster that is admittedly not very good, can still be questioned for several decisions in the first sixth of the season. His lineup construction remains a daily punchline, while his use of the bullpen faces regular scrutiny.

Yes, things have happened to help make the situation worse. Gonzalez lost his starting center fielder, Ender Inciarte, to injury in the third game of the season. Hector Olivera, the starting left fielder, was arrested in the second week of the season and might not ever come back.

But Gonzalez’s management of the roster he has to work with has been horrible. He’s rarely used Kelly Johnson, but then Tuesday hit him cleanup. Then Wednesday, Johnson was out of the lineup again as Gonzalez used matchups against the left-hander Steven Matz.

Gonzalez has shuffled players around. There is no starting second baseman, as it is someone different every night. Now, who is the third baseman, as Adonis Garcia is now being tried in left field?

The lineup shuffling has been ridiculous, but it has been nothing compared to Gonzalez’s atrocious management, or mismanagement of the bullpen. The mixing and matching of the pen has been a joke.

Is this all Gonzalez’s fault? Of course not. But he hasn’t helped the situation and this team should be better than 7-20.

What manager could survive what is going on? Gonzalez should have been fired at the end of 2014. He was, instead, saved because of Bobby Cox, his biggest supporter in the organization. Usually, a new front office would want its own guy, but Hart and Coppolella kept Gonzalez out of respect to Cox.

There is nothing on Gonzalez’s resume to warrant him being kept. And to blame the front office, as O’Brien implied and Schultz did, is silly.

Here is something that needs to be clearly written: this organization is rebuilding. It is something that has not happened in a quarter of a century. Most Braves’ fans were not even either born or paying attention to the franchise the last time they went through this.

Think about it. The Braves were awful in 1985 and then started the rebuilding process that went from 1986 through 1990. That means a man who is now 35 years old, born in 1980 or 1981, would have faint memories of the late-1980s when the Braves were awful – as they are now – and rebuilding – as they are now.

Most fans have simply never been through this. Many might not have jumped on the bandwagon until 1991, when the Braves’ rebuilding process resulted in the first of 14 straight division titles. Many were simply not even born yet.

This may get worse before it gets better. But to keep a manager because “this is not his fault” when we know he’s likely not the man the front office will want to keep for the long-term is not smart. This manager has done nothing to get this team going. What can someone who wants to keep Gonzalez say for his defense except to blame the front office for the roster?

So he should not be held accountable for the late-season collapses during his tenure? Gonzalez should not receive any blame for what happened in 2014 when the team expected to compete for a World Series but flopped? Gonzalez should just be given a pass for a horrific record, arguably the worst stretch in franchise history, since July 7 of last year?

Blaming the front office is ridiculous. Here’s why. When Hart and Coppolella took over in late October, 2014, this organization was broken. The roster was full of bad fits – players with bad contracts (Melvin Upton, Jr.), players who would soon bolt for free agency (Justin Upton and Jason Heyward) or players who just didn’t fit (Evan Gattis, an American League player).

Also, the farm system was in shambles. The best players were Lucas Sims and Jose Peraza. That was about it. The Braves were ranked in the bottom five by most analysts at the end of the 2014 season.

Since then, Coppolella has made trades that have given the team tremendous financial flexibility, rid itself of players who would have left and had the team gain little or nothing in return and also stock the farm system with talent so rich that it is now ranked as one of the top three in the game.

The Braves were broken, but Coppolella and Hart have fixed it with tremendous depth. Two years ago, there was little reason to regularly watch the minor league box scores. But now, there is reason to check what the prospects are doing each and every night.

There is no way to predict the Braves are developing future Hall of Famers, as it did in Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, but there is reason to believe the overall quantity and quality of the current prospects is just as good as what was being developed in the late-1980s.

The Braves are loaded, and in time they have an excellent chance of getting back on track. We have seen the promotion of Aaron Blair already, with Mike Foltynewicz also back up with the big league team. Matt Wisler and Arodys Vizcaino are proving to be big pieces of the pitching staff. Mallex Smith is an exciting young player who needs to get his feet wet. Plus, the recent promotions of infield prospects Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson prove they are not far away.

But do the Braves want Gonzalez in charge of these young players, when there is little chance he will be their manager in 2017? Does he deserve to stay? Why, because this is not his fault?

Fact is Gonzalez should have been gone after the 2014 season. The Braves made a mistake keeping him then. They also made a mistake extending his contract last July after the team had overachieved in the first part of the season. The Braves have been awful ever since, and it is time for Gonzalez to go.

Gonzalez is a nice man, and he should be thanked for what he’s done. He was a perfect fit to replace Cox as Atlanta’s manager. But what has he done to receive so much protection from the Atlanta media? Gonzalez would be crucified if he were in a more aggressive media market, but he’s often given a pass in Atlanta because reporters like the man.

Sherman reported Gonzalez told Coppolella Wednesday that, “There are only three outcomes: 1) Fire me. 2) Give me a vote of confidence through the rest of the season. 3) Pick up my 2017 option… I am good with any of this.”

The Braves should pick option number one. Gonzalez certainly knows what’s going on. He knows he’s a lame duck. He knows he won’t be around when the 2017 season opens. He knows he’s not Hart or Coppolella’s guy. Yes, it’s a difficult situation, and for that we should have sympathy for anyone in his position. But the time has come for a change.

Sure, he can’t make this team very good. But what did he do when he had a good team? Nothing. And is this really the person you want in charge when the Braves get good again?

No. Not at all. The Braves can simply do better.

Who is Gonzalez to give anyone an ultimatum? He’s done nothing to have that power. His record is simply not that good to have that currency. If he wants an answer, the Braves should give it to him.

The Braves need to fire Gonzalez, and they don’t need to wait. Get a fresh voice in the clubhouse to at least make this season respectable. Have someone take care of the young kids who will be part of the future. No one is going to fix this overnight, and it might take the rest of this season to simply prepare for an improved 2017 season. But Gonzalez’s time is over. It’s simply time for a change.

Thursday is an off day for the Braves. That’s usually when managers are fired. It’s time to pull the trigger and not wait any longer. Gonzalez has had his chance, and it is time for someone else to get a turn.

 

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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