• Fredi Gonzalez

    Snitker the Brave Receives Well-Deserved Extension

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was a moment that otherwise would be forgotten amid the wreckage of a lost season, the 72nd game of a campaign in which the Atlanta Braves would win but 68 times, would finish 26 ½ games out of first place, would promote an organizational lifer to the manager’s seat after a 9-28 start merely to steer the listless ship toward October and incoming certain change at the helm.

    The Braves hosted the New York Mets on June 23, 2016, at Turner Field, Brian Snitker filling out the lineup card as a major-league manager for the 35th time since replacing the fired Fredi Gonzalez six weeks earlier, 39 years after debuting as a minor-league catcher for Atlanta’s rookie-league affiliate in Kingsport, Tenn., 34 years after starting his first season as a manager for Atlanta’s Single-A affiliate in Anderson, S.C. The Braves were hosed out of the tying run in the bottom of the seventh, a blown call that (surprise!) replay upheld.

    Mets announcers, not surprisingly, were pleased with the call …

    But Snitker promptly strolled onto the field for an explanation from umpire Mike Everitt, who promptly ejected the interim skipper.

    Then, we saw it. Yes, it’s been there since 1977 and those days squatting behind the plate in the Appalachian League, but here on a major-league diamond was Snitker, stomping behind Everitt, arms flailing violently, Braves cap in his left hand, screaming at the top of his lungs, fighting for the team that brought him up only to keep a seat warm in the dugout, a demonstrative outpouring of passion and loyalty to the lone franchise he’s known, an outburst that made the 22,324 in the ballpark that night sound like 40,000.

    It truly feels like a fairy tale, this 2018 season that culminated in a National League East championship, a trip to the NL Division Series, the confluence of veteran leadership with young blooming talent. And in the midst of it all stood Snitker, who long shed the interim label, who Monday sat proudly in a red shirt and a blossoming offseason beard (mustache, too!) as the Braves announced a two-year contract extension with a third-year option for 2021.

    When Snitker was summoned from Triple-A Gwinnett to take the helm after Gonzalez was relieved of his duties, I joked on Twitter that he should bring Ozzie Albies with him. No way did I ever think this stint would last beyond the final game of 2016, but lo and behold, we saw something else that muggy June night in the ballpark that now is the home of Georgia State football.

    We saw the Braves rally. Adonis Garcia belted a two-run homer an inning after Snitker was sent to the showers, the come-from-behind 4-3 victory serving as foreshadowing for how Atlanta would become the battling Braves in years to come. Atlanta has won 57 games in its last at-bat since Snitker became manager, including 20 this season as the Braves raced past expectations and past the rest of the NL East, fashioning one of the most memorable campaigns in these parts since the franchise relocated from Milwaukee in 1966.

    For context, that was 11 years before Snitker joined the Atlanta organization.

    He deserves a ton of credit, and it started during those dark days of 2016. The Braves were an embarrassment in the final two months of 2015 and it continued through the early weeks of the next season, Atlanta going 34-76 in Gonzalez’s final 110 games as manager. Certainly, it wasn’t all his fault, with a stripped-down roster as the organization dove head-long into rebuild mode. Snitker managed 52 games before the All-Star break, the Braves going 22-30, then put together a 37-35 second half and knocked Detroit from the playoff race in the final game before home plate at Turner Field was dug up and transported via police escort to the dirt pile that would become SunTrust Park.

    Snitker found himself at the helm for 2017, an evaluation year that certainly would end with bumbling executives John Coppolella (trying to circumvent MLB rules) and John Hart (trying to lower his handicap) seeking a new manager for 2018, the man who would lead the Braves out of the darkness. Holes remained in the roster, of course, but Snitker helped squeeze a 45-45 start before Atlanta finally ran out of gas, and by late summer there was every indication the lifelong organization man would be in a different role come 2018. We’ve heard the stories by now, how right fielder Nick Markakis stood up for Snitker after Hart screamed at the manager following a loss in August, how Coppolella’s lack of people skills pushed Snitker to the point of telling a clubhouse attendant to pack his stuff while the Braves were finishing the season on the road, the affable lifelong Brave so disgusted, he had no desire to even return to his home ballpark.

    We all know how the story played out from there. Snitker, the beacon of steadiness, one beloved by players and staff alike, was the perfect person to guide the Braves one more season while new GM Alex Anthopoulos assessed the reeling organization top-to-bottom in 2018. Loyal to the brand to the very end, Snitker embraced the new regime’s reliance on analytics, formed tight bonds with several new members of the coaching staff brought into the dugout in the offseason, and continued to hold the steering wheel with a steady, firm hand as the trickle of young, promising talent reaching the majors grew into a wave.

    And his confidence grew, too. Two years on the job, more comfortable with the media, more relaxed. Brian Snitker had a chance – a real, fair chance – to manage for his job in 2018. He seized it. He benched Ender Inciarte, one of Snitker’s more vocal proponents, for failing to run out a ground ball. It didn’t change the center fielder’s feeling for his manager, but helped spark him to a strong second half. Snitker tried to single-handedly tear through the Miami Marlins roster to get at Jose Urena after Ronald Acuna Jr. was nailed on purpose with a pitch, his emotional postgame comments in which he described the Braves boy wonder as “my kid … I’m going to protect him,” resonating throughout baseball.

    And of course, the crowning moment, fighting back tears on the infield at SunTrust Park moments after the Braves won the East, saying simply, “I’m a Brave.” It’s a moment I’m not ashamed to say has made my eyes water every time I’ve watched it.

    He’s a Brave, indeed, and the gig is his. There are times where the tactical decision-making leads me to shake my head. I guess you could say that about any manager, coach, boss, person in power. But there is no denying this: I coached my kids in baseball for more than a decade. I would be honored for them to play for this man.

    Brian Snitker, the good company man, finally has his just reward. It’s not a retirement party or a gold watch or a farewell pat on the back. It’s this opportunity, one that made all those long bus rides and rain delays and time spent away from family across four decades worth the sacrifice.

    It’s a chance to manage a team that very soon figures to be a World Series contender. It’s a chance richly earned and well deserved.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    IT’S GAMEDAY: Embrace This Moment, Braves Country; You’ve Earned It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The oddsmakers have weighed in, the pundits and talking heads and bloggers and the rest of the world have offered their take on the National League Division Series, how one team is loaded with playoff experience – many of it gleaned from reaching the seventh game of the World Series last season – while the other team has shocked so many by just gracing the October stage.

    But baseball has a funny way of evening even the most lopsided playing fields, especially in the most pivotal month of the marathon season that begins amid the palm trees and desert sands in February and ends around Halloween with the crowning of a champion.

    Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave who finds himself on the eve of managing his first major-league postseason game, humorously corrected a reporter’s question during a Wednesday evening press conference at Dodger Stadium after the reporter said the Braves might not have as much playoff experience as the Dodgers, Atlanta’s opponent in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday.

    “They don’t have as much; not even might about it,” Snitker said with a humble giggle in discussing his team.

    My, how far this franchise has come.

    The Atlanta Braves are going to play a playoff game in less than 24 hours, an honest-to-goodness, real-life, hot-dang-this-really-is-October-baseball playoff game. It will unfold in the same venue where the Braves played their last postseason contest, but even if we don’t want to think about what transpired that Monday night in October 2013, it doesn’t matter at all.

    Because of what’s transpired since.

    Do you remember the Braves trading so much of their controllable talent, the pain you felt when Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis were shipped away for prospects? What about the evening before the season opener in 2015, when Atlanta found the solution to rid itself of B.J. Upton and his albatross of a contract at the expense of Craig Kimbrel being included in the deal, mere hours before the first pitch of the season?

    How about the awful final two months of 2015 (18-37 before winning three of four to end the season), a stretch in which the Braves gave up 20 runs in a game and employed the lovable Jonny Gomes for an inning of relief in an 11-run defeat that, arguably, may have been the highlight of that season? Those two things happened two days apart! Or, losing the first nine games in 2016 en route to a 9-28 start that sent Fredi Gonzalez, a dead manager walking entering that spring, into unemployment, complete with a Delta flight notification sent to him before he was given the news?

    There are about five zillion other examples that I could cite, but the bottom line is this. When your feet hit the floor Thursday morning, you begin an Atlanta Braves Playoff Gameday. How does that sound, Braves Country? It’s something we took for granted for oh, so long, as the Braves of yesteryear piled up division titles like they were Beanie Babies (remember them?), but a half-decade away wading through the vast underbelly of the National League makes one appreciative when you find the light again.

    The smart money, the experts, those in the know, are going to tell you the Braves have little chance of winning this series. Los Angeles has more talent, more experience, owns the advantage in everything from matchups to home field, and is just better. I’m not going to dispute any of that, because it’s true. The Dodgers are a better team 1-through-25. They can deploy a starting-lineup worthy bench at all times and have a lineup built to face lefties and another one geared toward righties.

    That’s all well and good. It should not diminish your enthusiasm, your hopes, your spirits one iota entering this series. And here’s why.

    Baseball’s postseason history is littered with the burned-out remains of cars destined for ticker tape and champagne, all crashed out by a lesser team that had little-to-no chance at the start of the series, only to trip up the prohibitive favorite. Baseball’s postseason, while not one-and-done after you advance past the wild-card stage, is the closest approximation we have in pro sports to March Madness. Especially in the division series, where with a five-game series the underdog merely has to win once in the opening two road games to have a chance to win the series at home in four games.

    What makes baseball’s postseason so compelling is often, the best team does not win the championship. We haven’t had a repeat world champion since 2000. As mentioned in this space this week, think of all the franchises that have won a World Series since the Dodgers last captured the title in 1988. The drama of October is a stark contrast to the six-month grind that compresses 162 games into 187 days. The finality is sudden and jarring. Success is euphoric and exhilarating. Catching lightning in a bottle isn’t just a trite saying, it’s a true strategy that more than one team has used to fuel a run deep into the year’s 10th month.

    That’s why these Braves aren’t just a nice turn-around story, one where we all should be happy just to be here. Yes, even if Atlanta loses three straight, there is no dulling the shine of what’s transpired in 2018. But don’t be fooled. The Braves are not just happy to be here, and privately there are plenty of people around baseball who will tell you they want no part of this bunch in a series, especially when three wins and not four is the ticket to advance.

    The feeling here is these Braves, with their blend of calming veteran leadership and youthful emotion, will fare just fine in their first foray into the madness of October. They might not win the series, but it won’t be easy for Los Angeles. This will not be a runaway by any stretch of the imagination. Atlanta has the talent and the tools to push the Dodgers to the very brink. If L.A. wins this series, they will have to earn it.

    And there’s no guarantee it won’t be the Braves heading to Milwaukee or Denver for the NL Championship Series. That youthful ignorance, confidence and swagger of a team that defied all the predictions of a 75-to-80 win season to capture 90 victories (20 coming in their final at-bat), win the NL East, earn the NL’s best road record and respond to every stumble or wobble, gives this correspondent every reason to believe we’re about to embark on quite a series.

    It’s a series that has been a long time coming for everybody in Braves Country. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

    You deserve this.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Braves rebuild costs Gonzalez managerial job

    The rumor that began in spring training and got louder as the Braves struggled through April and the first two weeks of May came to fruition Tuesday with the firing of manager Fredi Gonzalez.

    GM John Coppolella, architect of the Braves' rebuild, will seek a permanent manager to start the 2017 season.

    GM John Coppolella, architect of the Braves’ rebuild, will seek a permanent manager to start the 2017 season.

    Off to their worse start in a century, the Atlanta Braves, in full rebuild mode at the direction of CEO John Hart and GM John Coppolella, could no longer continue with Fredi Gonzalez, 52, in the dugout. While the responsibility falls on many shoulders, the manager is often first on the chopping block in these situations and so was the case this week for Atlanta.

    Gonzalez took the helm of the club in 2011 following the retirement of his mentor Bobby Cox. Moving from one NL East club to another, Gonzalez left the Marlins to lead the Braves to early successes. In 2012, the Braves played in the Wild Card game against the St. Louis Cardinals. They would go to the playoffs again in 2013, this time as the NL East champion. Since it became obvious that the Braves were going to commit to a rebuild, trading away Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Evan Gattis, Alex Wood and Andrelton Simmons over two off-seasons, the Braves have struggled to put together wins. They began this season in an 0-9 hole and currently have a horrendous 9-28 record.

    Going forward, the Braves have promoted from Gwinnett’s coaching staff Brian Snitker to serve as interim manager. Joining him from Triple-A is Marty Reed to serve as bullpen coach. With Gonzalez’s firing was also the firing of bench coach Carlos Tosca. It is assumed that both bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who will now serve as first base coach, and Terry Pendleton, now bench coach, will be candidates for the permanent manager position this off-season.

    Gonzalez leaves the Braves with a 434-413 record.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

    Braves begin offseason amidst change

    On August 1st, the Braves were 6 games over .500 and had lost in spectacular fashion to the offense-challenged San Diego Padres on a night that the team once again trotted out the struggling Mike Minor amid the worry that his downhill slide could be costly to Atlanta down the stretch. As it would turn out, Mike Minor was only one part of the behemoth that kept the Braves out of the playoff and began a huge shakeup in their front office.

    Since September 22nd when the Braves announced quite suddenly that they had fired general manager Frank Wren, they have made several additional moves.

    Hitting coach Greg Walker resigned after three seasons with the club. Given how poorly the bats performed this season, especially the bats of high-potential players Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson, Justin Upton and the high-contract players B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, the resignation of Walker wasn’t nearly as surprising as the departure of Wren. In addition to Walker leaving the coaching staff, the Braves hired recent Astros manager Bo Porter to be the third base coach under returning manager Fredi Gonzalez. His duties will include working with the outfielders and serving as base running coach. Porter served on the coaching staff of Gonzalez during his time with the Marlins. Gonzalez has been assured of his return in 2015, backed by his predecessor and mentor Bobby Cox.

    With John Hart as the interim GM while a search for Wren’s replacement continues, the Braves have shuffled the front office beginning with the hiring of the former renowned Yankees scout Gordon Blakely. Blakely will serve under the yet to be found GM as the special assistant to the GM.

    Blakeley and assistant GM John Coppolella have a history together going back to their days together with the Yankees. Blakely has a strong track record of successful international signings including now-Mariners’ slugger Robinson Cano.

    All of this change has certainly fed speculation about two potential candidates for open jobs within the organization: Dayton Moore and Chipper Jones.

    Dayton Moore, currently the GM of the ALCS-bound Royals, began his career with the Braves as a scout. He went on to be Atlanta’s assistant director of scouting, assistant director of player development, director of international scouting, director of player personnel development and eventual assistant GM. He left the Braves organization in 2006 when he was offered the GM gig in Kansas City. His contract with the Royals will expire this year.

    Chipper Jones, of course, hasn’t been gone long from the club. Since his retirement in 2012, Jones has been around the club during spring training and throughout the season. He has worked with B.J. Upton on his swing and has been willing to offer advice to his former teammates. However, now may not be the time for Chipper to return to the club as hitting coach. Despite his credentials, he seems to be set on continuing to raise his sons and take over his family’s ranch in Texas. If he were interested, he certainly would be an attractive candidate to the club and a respected voice by the players.

    Until decisions are made for the open positions and, honestly, the postseason concludes, the rumors will continue to fly about the future of the Braves. There are times when an organization needs change and as the team begins building for the big debut of their Cobb County stadium now seems to be the right time.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves fire GM Frank Wren

    With the Braves out officially out of contention and the blame game beginning, the Atlanta Braves made the first cut of the long offseason Monday morning by firing General Manager Frank Wren.

    Frank Wren game 15 years to the Braves organization, including 8 as assistant to John Schuerholz.

    In Wren’s 7 years as GM, the Braves made it to the postseason 3 times. However, in his 7 years with the club, 2 contracts will inevitably be linked to his downfall–those of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Wren, who took over as GM from former GM and now team president John Schuerholz, signed Uggla to a 5-year $62 million deal that the Braves will continue to pay on despite cutting ties with Uggla after the trade deadline this year. B.J. Upton, who remains with the club for the time being, signed a 5-year $75 million deal (the largest free agent signing with the club at that point) and has been even worse on offense than the dismissed Uggla.

    While the Braves made 3 postseason appearances in Wren’s tenure as GM, they won only 2 postseason games in those appearances and were unable to make it through the first round of division play. The infamous Wild Card game that saw the fans revolt at a controversial infield fly call also came during Wren’s tenure.

    Wren’s tenure will not be marked by only the faults of the Atlanta Braves system, however. As GM, Wren led spending last winter with the signings of young talent by way of Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward. The signings have set the club up going forward as they begin a new era at the new SunTrust Park in Cobb County set to open on Opening Day 2017.

    A search for a new GM will begin in earnest. In the meantime, former Indians and Rangers GM and current Braves senior advisor John Hart will serve as Atlanta’s interim GM.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves sign Simmons to 7-year extension

    Both Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons are now celebrating extensions--2 years and 7 years, respectively.

    Both Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons are now celebrating extensions–2 years and 7 years, respectively.

    Frank Wren continues a torrid spring of signings with today’s news that Atlanta has signed shortstop Andrelton Simmons to a 7-year extension. Simmons joins Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel as part of the young core the Braves have locked in for many years to come.

    The deal signed today with the defensive wizard is worth $58 million. Simmons’ deal includes a progressive salary beginning with $1 million for 2014, $3 million in 2015, $6 million in ’16, $8 million in ’17, $11 million in ’18, $13 million in ’19 and $15 million in 2020. In addition to his annual salary, Andrelton was given a $1 million signing bonus. Simmons will be 31 when his contract expires.

    Andrelton Simmons, the last regular man to arrive at camp due to visa issues, was quick to sign the extension with the Braves. Andrelton said he couldn’t be happier with the extension, noting that the Braves are a team he grew up following. Part of the reason for that is his fellow Curaçao countryman Andruw Jones who patrolled Atlanta’s outfield for 12 seasons, winning 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards. Simmons won his first Gold Glove award in 2013. His first of many, certainly.

    Andrelton Simmons is best known for his defense, notching a defensive WAR (wins above replacement) of 5.4 in 2013, the highest WAR for his position. Also in 2013, Andrelton recorded 499 assists, another best among those at his position. That same year he finished 14th in MVP balloting and won the Gold Glove. Simmons has a career .256 batting average in 206 games (840 plate appearances). While the small sample size doesn’t necessarily foretell Simmons’ offensive strengths in the years to come, his defense thus far is a good indication that he has the potential to be one of the best if not the best defensive players in the history of the game.

    Simmons’ signing is one of several in recent days and speaks to the payroll flexibility the Braves gain with the announced move to a new stadium in Cobb County.

    Atlanta’s front office has committed approximately $280 million to 5 players in extensions in just over 2 weeks Jason Heyward was signed for 2 years, Freddie Freeman for 8 years, Julio Teheran for 6 years, Craig Kimbrel for 5 years and now Simmons for 7. In addition to these signings, both Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren had their contracts extended through at least the 2015 seasons.

    Speaking to the recent extensions of himself and his teammates, Simmons said, “it’s really nice to see the Braves want to keep this team together. We have great talent.”

    Mike Minor, the only missing piece of the puzzle, is likely the next domino to fall. Minor is under Atlanta’s control for 4 seasons including the 2014 season.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves fall to Dodgers, begin long offseason

    The story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves season was one of resilience. With a core of young, talented guys, big off season acquisitions and a few veterans, the Braves won the National League East and entered the playoffs despite a season riddled with adversity. That the Braves even made it to the postseason is, in itself, quite surprising. That they couldn’t rise to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers stung, but their postseason performance aside, it was a successful season for Atlanta.

    Take a moment to consider what the Braves overcame this season:

    • Season-ending injuries to starting pitchers Tim Hudson (one of the few veteran leaders in the clubhouse) and Brandon Beachy.
    • Season-ending injuries to two of the best relief men in the business, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
    • Injuries that led to DL stints to nearly every outfielder on the roster including Jordan Schafer, B.J. Upton, Evan Gattis, Reed Johnson and Jason Heyward (the fractured jaw that cost Heyward weeks down the stretch being the biggest blow).
    • Minor injuries piled up for pitchers Paul Maholm, Scott Downs, Luis Ayala and the oft-injured Jordan Walden.
    • Sub-.200 batting averages for starters Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton.
    • Losses of Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena to season-ending surgeries.

    Any other team would have crumbled and ended their season at the bottom of their division. But the Braves, to their credit, forged on and made it to the playoffs knowing that they might lack consistent offense, would be without their starting second baseman due to his offensive woes and may or may not get much out of the veteran starter Freddy Garcia.

    The Braves may have headed back home to Atlanta to begin the long offseason with the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths, but they do have a few performances to remind themselves of from their playoff experience.

    • Freddy Garcia, the veteran righty who wasn’t even a lock for the roster until the day the playoffs began, gave the Braves 6 solid innings in Game 4. He surrendered only 6 hits and 2 runs, both runs homers off the bat of Carl Crawford. His performance was timely. Unfortunately, he walked away with the no-decision.
    • Chris Johnson continued his hot hitting, showing the baseball world just how he managed to stay in the batting title race until the final week of the season. Johnson hit .428 in the NLDS (7-for-16) with 5 RBIs.
    • Mike Minor’s NLDS start was reminiscent of his consistency and dominance all season. Minor pitched 6 1/3 innings giving up 8 hits but only 1 earned run (1.42 ERA). Minor struck out 5 batters.
    • Luis Ayala and Luis Avilan were exceptional in their combined 4 2/3 innings of relief. Avilan was in top form when he allowed only 3 hits and 0 earned runs in 4 appearances (2 2/3 innings). Luis Ayala was as brilliant as he had been in the prime of his career. He allowed only 1 hit and 0 earned runs in 3 appearances while striking out 3 batters (2 innings).
    • Craig Kimbrel secured a 4-out save in the single win of the postseason. He did not surrender a hit or a run and struck out 2 batters.

    Following the loss to the Dodgers, there were two story lines that dominated Braves’ coverage.

    Brian McCann was called up in 2005 spending 9 years with the Braves organization. He is now a free agent.

    Brian McCann has spent the first 9 years of his career with the  Atlanta Braves. He is now a free agent.

    The first being that game 4 would be Brian McCann’s final game in an Atlanta uniform. In the business that is baseball, there is no way the Braves can cobble together the money to sign free agent McCann. Unfortunately, the Braves will watch one of their young leaders walk away to a bigger contract, likely with an American League team. McCann was terrible offensively in the playoffs. He went hitless in 13 at-bats, striking out 6 times. However, McCann’s career in Atlanta will be remembered for his offensive prowess and his leadership. Since being called up in 2005, McCann has a .277 average with 1070 hits, 176 homers, 227 doubles and 661 RBIs in 1105 games. He was a 7-time all-star with 5 silver slugger awards. At the age of 29, he may be leaving Atlanta with his best years behind him.

    The other story line that followed the Braves’ loss was whether or not manager Fredi Gonzalez bungled game 4 when he brought David Carpenter out of the ‘pen rather than go to Craig Kimbrel for a 6-out save. Kimbrel had never been called in to get a 6-out save and though he said he was ready to do so, Fredi was prepared to bring Kimbrel in once there were only 4 outs remaining. Of course, Juan Uribe didn’t allow the Braves to get to within 4 outs with the lead. Was it the right call by Fredi Gonzalez? Whether or not it was, this is not a firing offense. Consider what Fredi had to lead the team through to get 96 wins and the NL East championship banner. If it weren’t for the Pirates’ incredible season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fredi Gonzalez get consideration for manager of the year.

    While the 2013 team had a special chemistry and overcame great odds to reach the postseason, the experience for the young core of starters will be beneficial in 2014 forward.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves’ remaining trade and free agent options

    With the loss of Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves were left with a major vacancy in their lineup—one they may not fully compensate for this winter alone. Replacing a future Hall-of-Famer, after all, is a difficult task. Gone too, presumably, is fleet-footed leadoff man Michael Bourn.

    Newly acquired slugger BJ Upton figures to take Chipper’s place somewhere in the middle of the Braves’ lineup. In inking Upton to a 5-year contract, Braves’ General Manager Frank Wren closed the deal with their top free agent target fairly quickly, filling the right-handed power hitter role. The hole atop the batting order, however, remains.

    If the Braves are able to score a capable leadoff hitter, it will make life easier on Braves’ Manager Fredi Gonzalez, but that quest is proving difficult. Wren and Co. do, however, have a plethora of ways to sort out their lineup for the 2012 campaign.

    Given Martin Prado’s ability to play a multitude of positions, we may see him slide over to third base and take Chipper’s spot on the field. This would give the Braves the opportunity to go after someone to play in left: a position that is much easier to fill than 3B.

    The Braves could patch up the empty LF position from within, which would be the simplest and most cost-efficient way to go about this. If Wren chooses to go with players already in the system, we’ll probably see some sort of a platoon like we did when Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske manned LF during the 2011 season. Not the most inspiring option, but an option it is.

    In a platoon, we could see Jose Constanza and Reed Johnson splitting time, as each bat from a different side of the plate. Prospect Evan Gattis is another possibility, and could see time in the big leagues this year regardless of what the starting lineup shapes up to be. Now 26 years old and no longer a kid by baseball standards, Gattis and his powerful swing could be ready to make the jump to Turner Field, and perhaps become a valuable player for the Braves off the bench. He currently has 13 home runs in the Winter League and is turning some heads.

    Of course, all this left field talk could be moot if Juan Francisco steps up and shows enough improvement to take over at 3B (which would keep Prado in left).  Francisco hit for a .234 average last season in 192 at-bats. At times, however, he did display the big-time power that attracted the Braves to him in the first place. Though Fransisco, like Gattis, is tearing up the Winter League, I wouldn’t bet rent money on his earning a starting role.

    Ideally, given the choices from within, the Braves will bring in a new starter from the outside. With the winter meetings done with, Frank Wren may have missed his best opportunity to land a new LF; however, that doesn’t mean his search is done.

    There are plenty of feasible options to choose from—both via free agency and the trade market.

    One player who could be had via trade is Emilio Bonifacio. While he was part of the blockbuster deal that sent most of Miami’s foundation to Toronto, the Blue Jays may be looking to free up some space in their budget after acquiring R.A. Dickey.

    Bonifacio hit just .258 but had a .330 on-base percentage in an injury-plagued 2012 season in which he played in just 64. In 2011, when he was healthy, he batted .296 and finished with a .360 OBP in 152 games. While those numbers don’t jump off the page, Bonifacio would be a significant upgrade in the lineup over the likes of Francisco and Johnson.

    Cody Ross, who batted .267 last year and hit 22 home runs, was on Atlanta’s radar. However, he has reportedly agreed to a deal with the DBacks.

    Someone else the Braves could go after, even if it may be a long shot, is Josh Willingham. The 33-year-old veteran is currently signed by the Twins, but the Braves might have the assets necessary to make a trade happen (if Minnesota is willing, of course).

    Willingham hit 35 home runs last season with a .260 average. Throw him into Atlanta’s lineup along with Heyward, Upton, McCann, Uggla and Freeman, and we’re looking at perhaps one of the best power-hitting teams in baseball.

    Other than the aforementioned players, there are other alternatives out there…

    Arizona’s Jason Kubel is a nice power bat, but he hits left handed, and if the Braves opt for adding more power (rather than a leadoff man), they would like to add it from the right side of the plate.

    Colorado’s Dexter Fowler is available for the right price, but the “right price”, as defined by the Rockies’ brass, borders on the absurd.

    Nick Swisher is still on the market, but has likely priced himself out of Atlanta’s plans.

    And there are likely other names about which the Braves have inquired, who we haven’t even thought about.

    If a deal can’t be struck before Spring Training, there’s always the trade deadline next summer. The Braves can get by with the playing they have now for the first two-thirds of the season; the playoffs, on the other hand, might be a different story.

     

    Braves start slow. Everyone panic!! On second thought, don’t.

    By Andrew Hirsh

    The Atlanta Braves have stumbled out of the gate this Spring Training, opening up their Grapefruit League schedule with an underwhelming 1-9 record, currently the worst in the MLB.

    Dan Uggla is one of the few Braves off to a fast start: .313, 1 HR in 16 AB's)

    It may feel natural to look at the numbers—both of the team and of individuals—and begin to worry about what it could mean moving forward. This is the first live baseball we’ve seen since October, after all. As fans we’ve missed the sport and wish to care about the games we’re watching.

    That being said, there’s no reason to put much stock (if any) in the final scores of Spring Training contests, especially those this early.

    Different priorities mean different results

    Both the players and the coaches have different prerogatives at this juncture than they will come April, and finishing with more runs than the opposing team simply isn’t important right now.

    Pitchers, for example, are generally more concerned with fine-tuning their mechanics and experimenting with new pitches than maintaining low ERAs. Hitters could be altering their swings to see what works and what doesn’t. Every player, regardless of their position, is shaking off the rust and going through their own routine to prepare mentally and physically for the regular season. And through that process, a lot of kinks need to be worked out.

    This approach may not pay off immediately, but it almost always benefits the players in the long run.

    Minor leaguers greatly affect Spring Training outcomes

    Perhaps the most obvious reason we shouldn’t put much stock in these games is the personnel on the field: Many of the players we’ve seen thus far are minor leaguers that are a year or more away from the big leagues. While they won’t be suiting up with the Braves this season, exposing these up-and-comers to MLB-quality competition is a once a year opportunity, and taking advantage of this time is imperative for every organization to properly develop their prospects.

    Martin Prado is also hitting well this spring, boasting a .368 avg. in 19 AB's.

    For managers, mixing in minor leaguers with the big boys is a common practice and vital element of these games. Brian McCann is going to be one of the best at catchers in baseball regardless of the amount of work he gets in during the month of March; but for prospects Christian Bethencourt and Evan Gattis, gaining experience catching and hitting major league pitching can play a big part in their progress as professionals.

    Figuring out who is ready for the Major Leagues and who isn’t is also important, and seeing some of these kids struggle is equally as vital as seeing others succeed. The weak performances of some of the Braves’ top pitching prospects—namely Julio Teheran—is disconcerting, but understanding now that they may not be ready to take the mound at Turner Field can prevent future troubles.

    Wins now don’t equal wins later

    Something else that’s important to keep in mind is the weak correlation between Spring Training success and regular season success. Last year, five teams that finished with 90 or more wins had a losing record in Spring Training. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who went on to become the National League West Champions, had more than twice as many losses in March than wins.

    The Braves may not look sharp, but it’s far from time to push the panic button, or even consider it. Once April draws closer, Fredi Gonzalez will begin to write lineups that resemble those we’ll see over the next seven months, and prospects that need time to work their game will be sent down to the appropriate level of the minor leagues.

    For now, we need to sit back, relax and enjoy stress-free games. And if a particular game may not go the way we want, remember that there’s a lot of baseball left to be played before opening day.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Carlos Zambrano, the Atlanta Braves, and a lesson in class

    By Jonathan Michael Knott

    Friday night’s contest against the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field featured some behavior rarely seen on a baseball diamond and almost NEVER involving the Braves.  Cubs starting pitcher, Carlos Zambrano, lost his cool after surrendering 5 homeruns to Atlanta hitters. This came as no surprise, as Zambrano has become well known for his short fuse and the kind of temper tantrums that usually result in after-school detention or the confiscation of one’s favorite toy.

    This time, however, it was worse than usual. When Cubs Manager, Mike Quade, opted not to remove Zambrano from the game during his 5th inning shellacking, Zambrano decided to remove himself. He attempted twice, quite transparently, to plunk Chipper Jones with a fastball. It seems clear in retrospect that he grew tired of being lit up like a Christmas tree and was trying to get himself tossed by the home plate umpire, Tim Timmons. And, of course, he was successful.

    His antics would have been shameful in any setting, but the time and place in which they occurred created a striking contrast.  It wasn’t just any Friday night game. The #6 jersey of legendary manager, Bobby Cox, was retired before the game that evening, after he was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame during a ceremony earlier that day.

    Legendary former Braves manager, Bobby Cox

    What made Cox such a remarkable manager was his unique ability to maintain an even keeled clubhouse over the course of 162 games.  The 14 straight NL East division pennants hung at “The Ted” during his tenure (a feat unparalleled in all of professional sports) are a direct testament to his leadership.  He never allowed emotions to run too high after a win or too low after a loss. Nor would he allow any of his players to wallow in self-pity after an error or during a slump. He had a way of helping each player to believe in himself. His players loved him for it and felt compelled to reward his patience and confidence on the field.

    Bobby was an encourager, and he was quick to forgive honest mistakes. One thing he did NOT tolerate, however, was slack effort or selfish behavior.  To exhibit such behavior was to punch your own ticket out of Atlanta, regardless of your talent level (Yunel Escobar being the most recent example).

    Which brings us back to Zambrano.  Again, the man has been known to make a fool of himself from time to time.  He was even ordered to take anger management classes for several months last year after erupting at Derrek Lee—widely considered one of the most amiable men in baseball—in the Cubs dugout.  But on Friday night in Atlanta, he outdid himself.  As Braves hitters knocked Zambrano around like oversized piñata, you could see in his eyes that he was inching ever closer to boiling point.

    When Dan Uggla connected for his second homer of the evening (the team’s fifth), Zambrano decided he was finished. After he took aim at Chipper with two intentional would-be beanballs, which Chipper narrowly avoided, Tim Timmons unhesitatingly ejected Zambrano.  Timmons then marched toward the Braves dugout yelling and gesticulating like an angry drill Sergeant, warning Braves players not to rush the mound.  This proved to be wise, as Jason Heyward (6-5, 250 lbs), Freddie Freeman (6-5, 240) and Eric Hinske (6-4, 260) had already charged out of the dugout, and had they been allowed to get up a head of steam it would have been like the running of the bulls at Pomplona.

    It’s a shame, really, that Timmons got in the way. It would have been fascinating to see how motivated Zambrano’s teammates, for whom he’s show such frequent disregard, would have been to rush to his aid and jump between him and the Braves’ linebacker-sized sluggers.

    Chicago Cubs starting pitcher, Carlos Zambrano

    But perhaps Zambrano didn’t notice the angry men with the professional wrestler physiques headed his way, because he didn’t seem concerned.  He just strolled calmly off the field. He paused in the dugout for just a moment, cracked a grin and yelled something incoherent at a TV cameraman, who tried not to notice.  He then made his way to the visitors’ clubhouse, cleaned out his locker and told the clubhouse staff he was retiring.

    This incident was different from his previous meltdowns. In an odd way, it was much worse. This time, the Gatorade coolers had nothing to fear. He didn’t clean out the bat rack, curse at his teammates or take out his frustration on any inanimate object within walking distance. This time, he didn’t get angry. Nope… he simply gave up and quit.

    First, he quit the game by deliberately throwing at Chipper for the express purpose of getting himself ejected. And then he quit the team when he cleared out his locker and left the ballpark while the game was still in progress.

    I’m pretty sure the Encarta North-American dictionary now has a new definition for “horse’s ass”.

    That kind of behavior sticks out like a sore grotesquely disfigured thumb anywhere, anytime. But at Turner Field, on a night set aside honor one of the all-time classiest managers of one of the classiest organizations in baseball… that’s a whole new level of irony.

    Cubs General Manager, Jim Hendry, later phoned Braves GM, Frank Wren, to offer a well received apology on behalf of his team. And Zambrano has since been placed on the 30-day disqualified list, which means he’ll have no contact with the team and will not be paid for 30 days.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Cubs management was as mortified as anyone in baseball by Zambrano’s behavior. But be that as it may, this wouldn’t have happened in Atlanta. Well, ok… it DID happen in Atlanta, but you know what I mean.

    This wouldn’t have happened under Bobby or his successor, Fredi Gonzalez.  Bobby was a longsuffering manager who forgave mistakes, but he did not suffer fools.  Fredi was hired as the person most likely to seamlessly carry on that tradition.

    Had Zambrano pitched for the Braves, he would have learned to control himself… or he’d have been shipped long ago to the American League for a tub of sunflower seeds and a player to be named later.  That’s just the way the way the Braves do business. The right way.

    The stark contrast between the idiocy of Carlos Zambrano and the professionalism of the Braves reminds us all what a classy organization this really is.

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