I have to start this by saying that I think the head coach position in baseball is easily the most overrated position in sports. Their job is to literally not mess things up. They set the lineup, decide when to make pitching changes along with who to bring in and they make the decisions on defensive shifts and when to intentionally walk someone. All of these things seem like they could be done by pretty much anyone. They also attempt to keep the clubhouse in order and make sure everyone is happy. Don’t get me wrong, there are probably a lot of people who would not be able to be the head coach of a major league baseball team, but the majority of the actual “coaching” comes from the hitting coach, pitching coach and bullpen coach. Matt Williams with the Washington Nationals is a good example of what I mean. The Nationals are one of the most talented teams in the majors (I would say top 5), but they didn’t even make the playoffs last season, and they really did not deserve to. And I blame Williams for that. Dusty Baker will lead them to the playoffs this year though.
So the question here is whether or not Fredi Gonzalez is to blame for the Atlanta Braves struggles this season. There has recently been a lot of talk on this matter, so I am hear to tell you what they should do.
They are 7-22 going into Sunday’s game with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Braves were not expected to do well this year, which is putting it mildly. I know I thought they might be able to come in third in the NL East this season, but I am already giving up on that idea. The Philadelphia Phillies are actually playing much better than expected (it won’t last, but it is still impressive) and that will probably keep them from finishing worse than the Braves.
Why are the Braves playing so badly?
A lot of people were skeptical about the trade for Hector Olivera. Alex Wood was playing well for the Braves, and also giving up Jose Peraza (who was a top prospect at the time) seemed crazy. Well, Olivera was pretty terrible at the beginning of this season when he was allowed to play. He was hitting .211/.238/.501 (BA/OBP/OPS) with 0 HRs, 2 RBIs and 2 Rs. Granted, that was only through six games. But after that sixth game, he was arrested for domestic violence. He is still on paid leave while the MLB continues to investigate the incident. But that trade really has not been as bad it looks. Wood has not exactly been lighting it up for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is 1-3 with an ERA of 5.18. And Jose Peraza is not even with the Dodgers anymore. He was part of a three-team trade in the off-season that sent Peraza to the Cincinnati Reds and brought Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox. The Dodgers got prospects and Peraza couldn’t even make the roster for the Reds, who are rebuilding much like the Braves.
Ender Inciarte (in my opinion the 2nd best player for the Braves behind Freddie Freeman) only just returned form the disabled list this weekend, which has also hurt the Braves this year. The team was also counting on Adonis Garcia to be big bat for the team, but with Inciarte returning, they have demoted him down to AAA in favor of keeping rookie outfielder Mallex Smith up with the big boys. Garcia was hitting .260/.319/.626 with only 1 HR (which came on opening day), 8 RBIs and 8 Rs (in 28 games). Smith on the other-hand is hitting .224/.284/.642 with 1 HR, 9 RBIs, 8 Rs and 4 SBs in just 22 games. The batting average may not be quite up to where we (or himself I’m sure) would like to be, but he is still just a 23 year-old rookie. He is still scoring runs and brings a base-stealing threat along with him, not to mention good defense.
Gonzalez also cannot hit for power for the team. The Braves have a combined seven HRs this season (Freeman has four). There are 17 players with more than that this season heading into Sunday’s games. Including Robinson Cano and Nolan Arenado who each have 12.
What could possibly be done differently?
Honestly, I cannot think of much of anything that could be done differently. Unfortunately, there is not really anyone Gonzalez could put behind Freeman to give the face-of-the-franchise a better chance to succeed. That being said, Freeman isn’t exactly scaring opposing pitchers so far this season (.275/.378/.829 with 4 HRs, 8 RBIs and 11 Rs in 27 games).
And the pitchers are not exactly daunting to other teams either. The bullpen started off this season by allowing any lead the offense and starting pitcher were able to get them disappear. Jason Grilli has an ERA of 5.00 and only 2 saves while blowing 2 save opportunities too. The starters have not been much better. Julio Teheran, the team “Ace”, has been pedestrian so far. He has not won a game yet this season (0-3), but his ERA is a respectable 3.48. Matt Wisler has been the best starter for the Braves with a record of 1-2 and an ERA of 3.24. Bud Norris started the season as the #2 pitcher behind Teheran, but he is 1-5 with an ERA over 7.
So what should the Braves do with Gonzalez?
At the very least, I think they should keep him through the regular season. No other coach is going to be able to do anything with this team. The Braves have a lot of future promise, so maybe next season the team and Gonzalez will part ways, and they will bring in a new coach who is known for his ability to work with young talent. But, I personally do not believe that Gonzalez has done that terrible of a job. You cannot blame him for the horrible decisions that the front office has made over the years, but he has certainly made his mistakes (you know, the things he is paid not to do). The biggest thing that comes to mind is three seasons ago in the playoffs against the Dodgers when the Braves had the lead in game 4 of the divisional round while down 2 games to 1 in the eighth inning, and he decided to leave in David Carpenter instead of bringing in All-world closer Craig Kimbrel to get more than just three outs. Yes that would not be conventional during the regular season (but this was the playoffs), so instead, Carpenter gave up the go-ahead two-run homer Juan Uribe, and probably 30 minutes later tops, the Braves season was over. Seems to me like it would have been a worthy risk…especially in hindsight.
So in closing, I think they should keep him, at least for this season. Why spend money on two coaches for a lost cause? The front office for the Braves can lie to us all they want in saying that they feel like they have roster that could compete for the playoffs, while we all know that there are very few other truths in this world with more certainty than that they won’t. I just do not see any logical reason for firing him at this time.
And I didn’t even mention the ridiculous schedule the Braves have faced so far.