Gonzalez embraces Braves' spring of change

Fredi Gonzalez just turned 51, and thus is approaching that time in a person’s life where change is as unwelcome as another AARP flier in the mail. But he is not quite there yet.

For instance, take the recent news that the United States and Cuba were dancing around the issue of normalizing relations. Didn’t faze him a bit. A certain generation of Cubans, like his parents, froth at the idea. But, Gonzalez said, “When it first came out, I thought it was great. I thought it was about time.”

Out of respect to his parents, Gonzalez has turned down various mission trips back to Cuba. He has not returned since Fredi Sr. and Caridad scooped up their three children (little Fredi not yet 3 years old) and boarded a freedom flight from the island to Miami in 1966.

“My mom and dad don’t won’t me to go back, and I won’t until they’re OK with it,” he said. “My mom still thinks if I go there, I’ll get arrested.”

The practical baseball man in him knows Cuba holds a wealth of talent, one the Braves are eager to fully mine and one that Gonzalez is anxious to see first-hand. When the time is right.

It is particularly helpful these days for the manager of the Braves to have a comfortable relationship with change. When pitchers and catchers report Friday — with the rest of the team due five days later — guys are going to be wandering around the clubhouse introducing themselves like so many fraternity pledges during rush. It will be the largest collection of strangers thrown together in Orlando, Fla., not riding a parking-lot tram in from Aladdin 107.

Back in his Turner Field office last week, while outside his door clubbies packed boxes bound for Florida, the manager held a printout of the most recent Braves 40-man roster as he spoke. It seemed for a while that Johnathan Schuerholz, the team president’s son now the Braves’ assistant director of player development, was emailing Gonzalez an updated one every week. It figures to be invaluable back-pocket reference material. “I’m sure I’ll carry this around with me for a little bit (at the start of spring),” Gonzalez said.

Seventeen players not in the organization at the close of the 2014 season are on that list. You may have heard something about an ambitious makeover taking place since a change in general managers.

Let’s take stock: The Braves traded their two leading home run producers of last season. And their No. 2 man in batting average and on-base percentage. Let their leading win-percentage pitcher go on the market. Restocked their prospect pool with a hoarder’s frenzy.

In the face of all this, Gonzalez rejects the term “rebuild.”

Having managed for three-plus seasons in Miami — much of that in the company of the youngest, cheapest roster in baseball — Gonzalez knows a little about rebuilding. He has plenty of experience with the roster overhaul and has lived through trades beneficial and epically flawed (see Miguel Cabrera to Detroit, 2007).

Those Marlins teams from 2007-09 were fair nuisances, averaging nearly 81 wins a season, improving slightly year over year while finishing consistently just outside the postseason. Winning 81 this season (two more than 2014) might even be considered ambitious for these Braves.

But, this is not a rebuild, Gonzalez repeats, as he embarks upon his fifth season managing the Braves.

“I think when you rebuild, you blow it up. I think what we did is we retooled. I think that’s a better term than rebuilding, “ he said, before serving a reminder of the veterans on this roster, both newly acquired and retained. “If you’re rebuilding you don’t have Nick Markakis. You don’t have Jonny Gomes. You don’t have a Chris Johnson or an A.J. Pierzynski.”

Nor is this a time to be anything less than aggressively hopeful, he said. Even if Washington, which finished 17 games ahead of the Braves a season ago, has gotten only beefier.

“I think we have a good, solid baseball team with a good pitching staff,” he said.

Why, Gonzalez figures he won’t get more than a couple of paragraphs deep into his first preseason address to the troops before invoking the aim of being an October surprise.

“Our goal is still the same, and that’s to get to the postseason,” he said. “We got to be really, really good. Be lucky. But why not? The sexy pick is the Nationals. The Marlins have gotten better. The Mets are getting healthier. But you have to play the schedule out. You just never know. You just keep battling.”

He’ll tell you that last year’s World Series contestants — San Francisco and Kansas City — made the postseason without either winning more than 89 games over the regular schedule. Who’s to say that’s out of reach, the manager asks.

Such is the dripping honey of spring.

The fact that Gonzalez is the one who gets to ladle it certainly wasn’t a given. We live in a time of great change at the administrative level as well.

He didn’t get friendly with Mike Smith beyond a distant admiration. “I always liked the way he carried himself on the field and in press conferences after games,” Gonzalez said of the dismissed Falcons coach. The other disappointing team up the road opted to react in a way opposite to the Braves, canning the on-field executive while keeping the front office intact, if reshuffled.

In the Braves case, while the names changed further up the tangled organizational chart and down in the clubhouse, the manager has remained as the constant. At least this season he won’t be weighed down by an unwieldy amount of outside expectation.

More of this spring will be a voyage of discovery. While the print media will be doing drills to convert the spelling of Pierzynski and Markakis to muscle memory, the manager and team will be getting to know each other on a little deeper level.

The manager goes to camp ready to be surprised. Asked about some of the lesser obvious storylines that interest him, Gonzalez finds no shortage. Might former Brave infielder Kelly Johnson, now a non-roster invitee, have something left? Just how fast is that Jace Peterson kid, the middle infielder acquired from San Diego as part of the Justin Upton trade? Can one of those players recently broken free from Cuba, outfielder Dian Toscano, find a home here? How high can top prospect Jose Peraza, a 20-year-old infielder, reach?

There are certain preconceptions Gonzalez will take south with him. He already has a sterling recommendation on incoming starter Shelby Miller — acquired from St. Louis at the cost of Jason Heyward. The Cards’ Adam Wainwright texted out the message that the Braves were going to love his competitive make-up and his work habits.

And the first conversation with Gomes certainly was heartening. “When you talk to him on the phone you like the energy and the passion,” Gonzalez said. “He said, ‘I just want to hang banners, that’s all I want to do.’”

With all the roster turnover, the manager has a lot of getting-to-know-you to do. It’s a process, he said, done on a languid schedule so typical of spring training.

“I’ll be spending time with those guys somewhere, usually in a comfort place,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t like coming to the office to talk; it’s like going to the principal’s office. So you get to know them going from one field to another, shagging in the outfield, by the batting cage. All their comfort places.”

Then hopefully after six weeks of that, everyone will have a better idea whether there is much to like about the changes made.