LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s 7 a.m. and Fredi Gonzalez has been at the stadium for a couple of hours. He likes the quiet. In his world, there’s an attraction to sitting alone in a stadium office, even against the backdrop of long springs and even longer seasons.
“It’s the only time you really get to think about things,” he said. “And it gives me a chance to return calls and texts. I mean, if you’re in spring training and somebody calls you at 10:15 at night, knowing you’re dead asleep, I’ll call them at 4 a.m. and wake them up. ‘Hey, I’m just returning your call. How ya’ doing?’ They’ll never call me again.”
A guy has to have some fun while he can, and this Braves season again projects as lacking much of that.
As the manager of a prospect-filled roster, thirsting for proven commodities, Gonzalez will be called upon to do more nurturing and ego-massaging than ever before. He’ll tell you he has been fully supportive of this organizational talent churn, not that he really had a choice, but admits there were deals that left him wondering, “Now what am I supposed to do?”
“Name any of those guys we’ve traded — (Andrelton), Simmons, (Shelby) Miller, (Jason), Heyward. I was like, ‘Who are we getting back? No, that’s not enough. I want five guys,’” he said. “Who’s playing the outfield? Who’s giving me 200 innings?”
Which leads to the question: How do we gauge the success of the Braves’ manager this season, knowing he has come under criticism in the past (justified or not), knowing that judging the man on a won-loss record this season just wouldn’t be fair.
General manager John Coppolella is focused on player development, but believes that and success can happen concurrently. Gonzalez agrees. But it’s the spring. March and pessimism aren’t supposed to intersect.
Coppolella remembers when he presented the Craig Kimbrel trade to Gonzalez just before last season, knowing dealing the team’s closer (mainly to package Melvin Upton Jr. and his albatross contract with him) could crush the bullpen.
“After trading all of those guys who had one-year contracts, Heyward, (Evan) Gattis, (Justin) Upton, he could’ve easily said, ‘Uncle. I want to keep my closer. But he said that was too good of a trade. He cares about the Braves and their future.”
True. But he also cares about his own future, and he’s not set up for success in the short-term. He will need to lead. Not many know this about Gonzalez, but he’s an avid reader and is mostly drawn to non-fiction: Books about wars. Biographies about leaders. Stories about leading young man. One of his favorites: “Leaders Eat Last.”
“Who should eat first? The grunts,” he said.
“I’ve learned a lot from different books. People are always watching you. People watch how you’ll react to things, how you treat people, how you treat players.”
The tangibles aren’t there for the Braves. They have talent, but it’s young and unproven and, therefore, susceptible to jumping the rails at any moment. Gonzalez saw that from young pitchers Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims this week, both of whom were beat up in spring starts Thursday and Friday. The Braves have been tabbed as having the worst starting pitching rotation in the majors, and their closer for most of last season (Jason Grilli) is coming off a torn Achilles.
I’ll stop there because, well, it’s March.
In short, Gonzalez has to squeeze every drop of potential from this roster. Otherwise the team will lose 90-plus games again and Gonzalez may lose his job.
“When you want to fire a manager or a coach, you can always find a reason,” he said. “I think we develop guys and win. I’ve been there, done that with the Marlins. But nobody has ever come up to me and said, ‘You’ve got to win the division and win 110 games.’”
Gonzalez isn’t going to give between-innings speeches about Patton or McArthur leading outmanned troops to victories, even if the material is there.
But, “Attention to detail. Leading men. Morale. If you’ve got good morale and team chemistry, it’s hard to quantify, but you can do better than people think.”
The Braves used 60 players last season, including 37 pitchers. They used 33 pitchers out of the bullpen (OK, 32 plus Jonny Gomes).
“There were days after games when we didn’t know who we were going to bring up,” Gonzalez said. “It was like: Just give me anyone. Fortunately, I think we’re past that now. We’re still going to go through a lot this season, but some of that will be by design, and the quality will be a lot better.”
The Braves overachieved to a .500 start through 84 games last season. Then came an injury or two and they crashed and burned, right on schedule, going 25-53 in the final three months. The start seemed closer to an aberration than the finish, but you won’t hear that from the manager.
“If you have the right players with the right makeup and the right character, you can win,” he said. “But we’re so thin. Our margin for error is small.”
And that’s not likely to change soon. He’ll let the grunts eat first.
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