Fire Fredi? No one could succeed with this roster

 

NEW YORK – After watching these Braves for seven weeks of spring training and the first four weeks of the season, after watching the spiral that was 2015, I’ve come to a conclusion: 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.

Because whether you or I believe that Gonzalez is a good, bad or middling manager, the simple, inarguable fact is that he’s been given a team entirely underequipped to compete at this level, to go toe-to-toe with most of those on an early schedule that ESPN’s Buster Olney rated the most difficult in the National League, and which has proven to be precisely that.

If Fredi Gonzalez is fired now, it's going to look like a classic example of scapegoating. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

If Fredi Gonzalez is fired after the team’s poor start, to many it will be a classic example of scapegoating. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

If you’re going to fire him, at least wait to do it after the Braves get to face some teams that it might actually stand a chance against. Because, to be blunt, you’re delusional if you believe the Braves should’ve been able to hold their own against the teams they’ve faced so far.

The Braves have far less talent than every team they’ve faced in the first month of the season except possibly the Marlins, and they swept a three-game series against them in Miami (just before the Marlins swept a four-game series from the Dodgers in L.A., but that’s not the point here).

Other than the Marlins, here is the opponent in every series the Braves have played so far: Nationals, Cardinals, at Nationals, Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox, at Red Sox, at Cubs, at Mets.

Zero. That’s how many of those series anyone who watches baseball would’ve predicted the Braves to win. And they won zero, although they did split a pair of them, two-game series at Boston and at Chicago. Now consider some of the aces on those teams they’ve faced — a majority of the best pitchers in baseball have already started against the Braves this season, some more than once.

Again, I’m not saying Gonzalez is a great manager. I’m not even saying he’s a particularly good manager. That can be reasonably debated. But he’s not the bad manager that so many Braves fans and others make him out to be, and that was evident from his very respectable record before 2014.

Before the Braves under GM Frank Wren made some ill-advised trades and contract extensions involving the likes of B.J Upton, before they started relying so much on scrap-heap pitchers to not just round out their starting rotation and bullpen but comprise the bulk of the pitching staff.

And then they went in another direction, one that most observers believed necessary for the long-term health of the franchise, but which also gave the current manager even less of a chance of winning for the forseeable future. That was the course set by firing Wren, revamping the front office and beginning to slash payroll and trade away most of their better established players for prospects in order to rebuild their farm system at the expense of the current team, even as they insisted that the current team would remain competitive — and doing very little that actually supported that idea.

Folks, you might not like Fredi’s calm demeanor. I, too, miss Bobby Cox’s fiery streak, although I also realize we would’ve seen a whole lot less of it if Cox was in his prime now in the age of replay. (I mean, can you even give me three examples in the past two seasons of a major league manager having an on-field tantrum and/or getting in an umpire’s face? Think about it.)

And here’s something I want to get out there, because it really bothers me. It’s easy to forget that English is Gonzalez’s second language, for all intents and purposes, since he was born in Cuba and came at a very young age to Miami, a city where a kid raised by Cuban parents in a neighborhood filled with other Hispanic folks is not necessarily, or even likely, going to speak a lot of English in his early years.

I say this because some people seem to watch Gonzalez misuse or mispronounce a particular word in English and – I’m certain of this – they allow that to reinforce their opinion that he’s not bright. Do you speak a second language? I know I don’t, and I took Spanish in high school, French in college, and was married for six years to a Colombian woman. I can’t say 10 words in any language except English. And most Americans I know are about the same as far as that’s concerned. So let’s get off that arrogant stance of expecting others to speak English fluently but not even considering the fact that we can’t say (bleep) in a second language. How many other managers move easily from answering in English to Spanish in group interviews when a Spanish-language media member is present?

I’m not saying that thinking that way about Gonzalez or something else who misuses a word is racist, because I have no idea what’s in the heart of each person  who thinks that way. I’m just saying it’s not accurate to suggest or believe it’s a sign of ignorance. If anything, it’s a sign of ignorance in the person forming the opinion. Gonzalez is very bright. Question his lineups or his use of a bullpen or whatever, but know that you are dead wrong if you actually think he’s not a smart guy.

You don’t get where he is, coming from his humble background, without being a smart guy. And if you’re shaking your head right now, disagreeing with me or saying he got where he is because of Cox or someone else, well, then I’m probably not going to convince you otherwise. Nor am I going to try much longer.

But just think about that for a second: Years before he ever met Bobby Cox, his mentor and strong advocate, Gonzalez had worked his way from a marginal minor league catcher into being interviewed and picked by some very good baseball men in Florida – Dave Dombrowski, the late Carl Barger – as the first minor league manager they hired.

Or, consider this: In recent weeks, everywhere we go, folks ask about the team’s bad start and what’s going to happen, and when we mention that Fredi could get fired any day, not a single person from another town or an opposing team — not a player, current or retired coach or manager, or writer from another town I’ve encountered — has said, yeah, they need to fire him.

To the contrary, the general reaction is along the lines of, “Why are they going to fire him? It’s sure not his fault this team is so bad.” I had a retired, future Hall of Fame manager cuss and say he couldn’t believe they’d fire Gonzalez over this, and that they’d be firing a good man and manager.

Dismiss all these views if you wawnt to, but I’m telling you, that’s what is out there. And I’ll repeat: I’m not saying Fredi is a great manager, and I’ll add that I completely understand your frustration over these past couple of years and the September collapse years before that. But if he was going to be fired, it shouldn’t be over the performance of this team now. No way. And doing so will look like it is, that’s clear.

Getting back to the present. The Braves are pretty bad. Their minor league talent is deep and much of it is elite. Their current major league talent is not. Not much of it is elite. A couple of hitters and a couple of hitters, plus some very promising kids and plenty of veterans who are a bit past their prime, though they still can contribute on the field and have helped maintain a good clubhouse.

Fredi has probably pushed more buttons this year that didn’t work than did, but here’s the thing: How can we really even know? Most of the options he has to pick from in crucial situations are bad options. Most of the lineup configurations – no, all of the lineup configurations – have at least four or five players – and some days more — that a lot of other big-league teams would not pursue for their starting lineups and a couple who might barely be bench candidates on contenders.

The mistake that Braves management made, in my opinion, was to talk about the “duel paths” thing so much initially when they began this rebuild (another mistake was refusing to call it a rebuild). Remember, the dual paths? They were going to remain competitive in the present, while building a team to contend for championships in the future, a future that initially they indicated could come by 2017?

Well, they’re not going to contend for a championship in 2017. And in the interim, since they began this rebuild after the 2014 season, the Braves have become one of the two or three worst teams in baseball. Statistically speaking, they are easily the worst team since the second week of July 2015.

After a 42-42 start – in which the Braves clearly overperformed, but how many gave Gonzalez and his coaches credit for that? – they are 31-72 in their past 103 games, including a majors-worst 6-19 this season.

They are bad. And that is not because of the manager. It’s just not. If you think it is, I suggest you’re not looking at the talent on the field and comparing it to every single opponent the Braves face. Even the Marlins are better at more positions, head-to-head, than the Braves. Actually, quite a bit better at most positions.

Is Gonzalez the manager to take the Braves into their new park and lead the legions of prospects on the way? Probably not, though I think he actually deals quite well with young players. The team will want to go with a fresh face  in the manager’s chair as it moves into its new ballpark, in large part because so many fans have howled for Gonzalez’s head for so long, and let’s face it, this is a business and the fans can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But to fire him now, because the team has gotten off to an even worse start than expected? To me, that would the classic example of scapegoating, and I hate scapegoating. You can point to a few pitching changes he should or shouldn’t have made, or a pinch-hitter he should or shouldn’t have used in this game or that one, but if you believe even Buck Showalter or Bruce Bochy would’ve gotten more than 8-9 wins out of this team and this talent through those first 24 games, well, I’d suggest you’re letting distaste for Fredi color your reasoning.

Besides, Showalter or Bochy would likely have resigned to move on to greener pastures if the talent level of their team ever was reduced to this level, rebuilding plan or not. That, or they would’ve been fired for getting into repeated arguments with front-office officials over what they were giving them to work with and what it was doing to their career managerial records.

• Let’s close with this one from the great James McMurtry.

“THESE THINGS I’VE COME TO KNOW” by James McMurtry

James McMurtry

James McMurtry

She’ll spend a dollar quick as a dime
She goes commando most all of the time
She writes a fine prose I’d have to say finer than mind
These things I’ve come to know
These things I’ve come to know

She likes to two-step She likes to waltz
She likes to tango no matter the cost
because she likes to spin until it leaves her a little bit lost
These things I’ve come to know
These things I’ve come to know

I don’t know what made me so brazen and bold
At the time I was feeling so wasted and old
And I can’t dance a lick but sometimes I can flat rock and roll
These things I’ve come to know
These things I’ve come to know

You can yell at the top of your lungs for a round
But late in the shift she’ll suffer no clowns
and if you’re wondering if the tattoo goes all the way down

She can change her own fuse, she can fix her own car
She can back down a drunk and run him out of the bar
She don’t scare easy,but she can be pushed too far
These things I’ve come to know
These things I’ve come to know


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