If you choose to make the argument that Fredi Gonzalez wasn’t fired for this season but rather September collapses of years past, we can have that debate.
If you choose to make the argument that Fredi Gonzalez isn’t the right manager to nurture young players as the Braves attempt to build and re-brand themselves for the future, we can have that debate, too.
But the truth is, that’s bunk. That’s not why Fredi Gonzalez was fired Tuesday as much as the front office clones of John Coppolella and John Hart and John Schuerholz will attempt to spin it that way. They needed somebody to blame.
The Braves are a steaming pile of humiliation. But no front office executive has stepped forward and admitted, “We miscalculated our readiness this season.” Or, “We knew it would be bad, but we chose not to say it.” Or, “Wow, is it possible we did something wrong?”
Gonzalez, solid baseball man and classy guy that he is, leaves without a counterattack. Celebrate that, while Coppolella, Hart and Schuerholz spin wonderful tales about a bright future in a new stadium.
They fired Gonzalez after a 9-28 start this season. Sure. Blame the manager. That’s the easy way out, right? Don’t take ownership and admit wrongdoing because that would plant seeds of doubt in fans’ minds about the blueprint moving forward. We can’t have that, not with the public sale of season tickets in a new stadium having begun.
On Tuesday, Hart and Coppolella both said, “This isn’t Fredi’s fault.”
“Our bad start is not just laid at the foot of Fredi Gonzalez,” Hart said.
OK. But Gonzalez was fired, while Hart and Coppolella are still employed. And why is that?
Coppolella was considered a bright, young baseball executive when the Braves appointed him as Frank Wren’s successor. And maybe he is. The proof will be in whether enough of the prospects acquired over the past 18 months rise above, “Looks great on paper.”
But Coppolella has been delusional in his expectations of this season. He set Gonzalez up for a fall. His plan: long term. His sudden obsession: short term.
The Braves didn’t believe Gonzalez deserved to be fired in the past. They pledged their loyalty. They vowed he was the manager to lead them. They lied.
I asked Coppolella in spring training about the difficult position Gonzalez had been placed in, given the rebuild.
His response: “We feel loyal to our manager and the staff. It’s a family here, and that’s what we’re trying to create here in the Braves’ organization, just like when John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox built the organization. Everybody has each other’s back.”
Funny. He didn’t say anything about a knife.
If Coppolella were to admit he was wrong for thinking the Braves would be a competitive and entertaining team in 2016 — not one that makes our eyes bleed — it would show honesty and humility. But I guess that’s not the “Braves way.”
While CEO Terry McGuirk has watched from a smudge-free distance: Schuerholz (vice chairman) fired Wren and brought in his pal, Hart as president of baseball operations; the two promoted Coppolella to GM; Hart and Coppolella preached to the masses about traveling down “parallel roads” and staying competitive during this makeover. (Horsepucky.)
Out went Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis and Alex Wood. In came lottery tickets that may or may not pay off.
The consensus win projection (this side of Coppolella’s dream world): 65 to 67. That assumed no major injuries or setbacks or arrests. (Stay tuned.) Coppy scoffed. He said this team was better than last year’s. We laughed. Coppy scoffed again.
A brief recap of what has happened:
• Freddie Freeman, the team’s best remaining player, was hitting .177 three weeks into the season. (He has since rebounded to .284.)
• Leadoff hitter and center fielder Ender Inciarte strained his hamstring in only the third game and missed a month. (He’s back now, hitting .191.)
• Hector Olivera, the Braves’ hoped-for Cuban miracle, was arrested for alleged domestic violence, and has proved nothing in the majors to this point, other than how to land a $62.5 million contract. His next hearing isn’t scheduled until July. Then baseball can administer its own punishment.
(Stop me when you find something you can blame on Gonzalez.)
• The defense makes the decision to deal Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels (for two prospect pitchers and Erick Aybar) look even worse. Coppolella assumed Aybar would be solid on defense and superior to Simmons at the plate. OK, Simmons was hitting only .219 with a .526 OPS before suffering a torn ligament in his thumb. But Aybar and Braves shortstops are hitting a combined .183 with a .425 OPS.
• The Braves, with 30 errors, rank next to last in the majors in fielding percentage (.978). There’s only one thing worse than having the worst starting rotation in baseball: Having the worst starting rotation, backed by one of the worst bullpens, backed by one of the worst defenses.
• Catcher A.J. Pierzynski, expected to be a backup last season until the Christian Bethancourt fallacy became official, stunned all by playing 113 games and hitting .300 at the age of 38. A market correction was inevitable. He’s now hitting .220.
Other than the steady Nick Markakis, there’s the heart of your improved lineup.
I’m not suggesting Gonzalez is Joe Maddon or Bruce Bochy, the two most frequent names heard as “best manager.” But put one of those in the Braves’ dugout on opening day, and what do you think the Braves’ record would be?
Fact: Analytics-driven blogs suggest a manager can make a difference in three to six wins per 162-game season. That’s less than two-to-four percent.
Gonzalez was set up to lose. Lose he did. Now he’s paying the price for somebody else’s mistakes.
The Braves trust Hart and Coppolella. We’ll see if their vision for the future is accurate — because they certainly were wrong about 2016.
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