So, it’s officially begun. Middle Florida is a hotbed of activity, and the stories are already coming in. But in between the stories about Chipper Jones‘ weight, Freddie Freeman‘s knee and Tommy Hanson‘s head, there’s a story that hasn’t been addressed that I think deserves some conversation before the season starts. That conversation is all about Fredi Gonzalez. Obviously, the players put in the work and suffer the consequences of what happens on the field, but the manager plays a serious role out there.
If you read my last article, you know I’m an unabashed Braves fan, and it goes without saying that I’m an unabashed Bobby Cox fan. I’ll keep the discussion about him brief, since, like all Braves fans, it is time to look forward to the future of this team. But what I truly appreciated about Cox’ approach to managing was his patience. He put a lot of trust in his players to not only get the job done, but to face their mistakes head on and find their own ways out of tough situations. This served many purposes; most importantly, that players learn from their mistakes and build confidence in themselves.
For the rest of this article, you are going to have to trust me. There aren’t many articles that I could find, but as someone who watched, listened or went to 95 percent (unofficial number) of the Braves’ games last season, I feel quite confident moving forward here.
Fredi Gonzalez was, in my opinion, the obvious choice to replace Cox when the position opened up. I say that because he had handled young talent in Florida with the Marlins, but more importantly, he had shared the bench with Bobby for a few years and was a good candidate to bring that same approach to the game. I can’t say for sure that he was the best choice, but it certainly made sense. Last year, however, I wasn’t impressed with Fredi’s handling of a few things, most significantly the pitching staff.
I will admit his back was up against a rough and uncomfortable wall last season — dealing with Dan Uggla‘s hitting struggles, trying to get Jason Heyward back on track and the bevy of injuries that sidelined some of the Braves’ strongest players. That said, he still went about those tasks like someone was breathing over his shoulder. His adjustments in the batting order to try and spark the right combination were inventive, but they never had time to gel and start producing the way he wanted to because as soon as he changed it, he would change it again.
But this article is more about the pitching staff, especially considering that some of the go-to pitchers down the stretch started failing in situations that used to be right in their wheelhouses. Jonny Venters, also known to some as “Everyday Jonny,” struggled through September, after having a dominant season until then. Gonzalez expressed concerns that he had thrown Jonny too much and it had taken its toll. But his response was to start giving Venters days off, when Jonny thrived throwing at least five days a week. Being a breaking ball pitcher, his ball broke more with more work, so his having three days off in a row hurt more than helped.
In addition, when pitchers found themselves in a jam while on the mound, after the requisite visit from Roger McDowell, Gonzalez didn’t give them much of a chance to dig their way out. I remember more than one game when Tim Hudson, a contact pitcher, would find himself later in the game with a growing pitch count and two men on base, but still with a handle on the game. He would record an out, starting to dig himself out and Gonzalez would make his way to the mound, much to Hudson’s dismay. Actually, it could have even been called downright anger. Huddy’s a veteran, and as a veteran, it is important to him to prove himself every time he takes the mound.
Obviously, this is the manager’s dilemma; knowing when the time is right to change pitchers, switch a batting order and put in a pinch-hitter, among many other decisions game in and game out. As I said, this is solely my opinion. But I do think that Fredi has to begin making better decisions this season. He needs to put more trust in his players on the field and have their backs at all times. Especially this year, with veterans trying to show their worth through their age, and young players trying to prove themselves not just to their teammates and their city, but to the rest of major league baseball as well. There is a plethora of talent in Atlanta this year, and they are going to need a true figurehead to lead them to October.