Nearly six weeks ago, as the rebuilding Braves were in the midst of their slow, late-summer march to the end of another playoff-less season, it appeared the organization was strongly leaning toward bringing back quasi-interim manager Brian Snitker for another year. (I write "quasi-interim" because while the organization removed the interim tag after the 2016 season, they gave him a relative limp handshake of a contract: one guaranteed season plus an option.)
But here we are less than three weeks from the end of the season, and Snitker's future suddenly seems shaky again.
Never mind that first baseman Freddie Freeman told me Aug. 4 that he went to management two weeks earlier and "expressed to them that we love Brian in here. (He has) put in all the time and done everything possible to help us win." (It's believed other players also have spoken on Snitker's behalf.)
Never mind that president of baseball operations John Hart, who essentially is general manager John Coppolella's superior, said on that same night that while a decision won't be announced until after the season, "... Let’s just say that Brian hasn’t done anything to make us look around for candidates like we were doing at this time last year, when we were compiling names. ... I’m not going to say anything (definitive) now. But I think you hear me loud and clear. I’m very happy with the job he’s done and who he is. ... There are times we go out there and the other team has greater talent. But from an X’s and O’s perspective, Brian doesn’t get caught. He really checks all the boxes for me.”
Powerful words. I honestly believed at that point that Snitker's future was secure. Now, I'm not so sure. A few reasons why:
• While the Braves were only 50-58 after a win that night over Miami, they went into Wednesday's game against Washington with a mark of 65-78. So since a high-water mark of 45-45 (.500), an unlikely pace given the team's pitching problems and run differential, the Braves went 20-33 (.377).
• If the front office has changed directions on Snitker, the impetus for that might have occurred during a game against Seattle on Aug. 23. The Braves led 5-4 entering the eighth when Snitker put reliever Jim Johnson into the game. Johnson already had lost his closer's job and been torched in several recent outings, but Snitker was concerned about using other likely candidates in an overtaxed bullpen (Arodys Vizcaino, Jose Ramirez, Sam Freeman). The decision blew up in Snitker's face as Johnson faced four batters, but never recorded an out and was slapped for four runs, three hits, a walk and a wild pitch.
• Long-time baseball writer Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported the Braves are "assessing their managerial situation, and there remains a possibility they could make a change." This seems like a strange thing that would leak out if Snitker's future was solid.
• Perception and marketing often comes into this. While Hart and Coppolella might still fully believe in their rebuild, their winter plans and the potential of next year's team, there's a significant question of whether they can sell another year of Snitker to the ticket-buying public.
My thoughts on Snitker have never really changed. It was a cool story that a Braves' lifer was given his dream job after Fredi Gonzalez's exit last season. But he has never been the best manager nor the worst (the Johnson decision notwithstanding).
The Braves are where they are because they have one of the worst pitching staffs in the major leagues: 25th in total ERA (4.81), 23rd in starter's ERA (4.89) and 27th in bullpen ERA (4.68). You're welcome to use any metric you like to measure pitching effectiveness. I just thought ERA was the easiest way to illustrate the situation.
The point is that Snitker shouldn't be held responsible for not winning with a roster of limited capability. But isn't that the way it often works? (Worth repeating: The Braves' over/under win projection ranged from 71.5 to 75.5 before the season. Their current win pace factors out to 73.6.)
If the Braves believe moving on from Snitker would give them a better chance to win, fine.
If they believe they need to make a change for the sake of appearances going into a new season, that also wouldn't be unusual.
What remains as uncertain as the Snitker decision itself is who they would replace him with. There has long been speculation the job would go to coach Ron Washington (a candidate before this season) or Bo Porter (a long shot that I don't believe). My personal view: Promoting either Washington or Porter to the managerial job would be an insult to coach Terry Pendleton, who deserves an opportunity, or even Eddie Perez.
Hart said last month a decision won't be made/announced until after the season. But I don't know what the final few weeks of the season are going to tell Hart and Coppolella that they don't already know.
Hart's comments in August were so strongly in favor of Snitker that part of me doubts he has made a complete 180. But I'm not nearly as confident now as I was then, and like a quart of milk in the refrigerator, Hart's words may have had an expiration date.
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