Hart: Braves ‘lethargic,’ need changes

In the final month of the season, the Braves went from a flawed team to flawed and disinterested.

Bobby Cox, the former manager now back as a member of the organization’s post-trauma, “Sunshine Boys” executive team with John Schuerholz and John Hart, was determined to smother any suggestion the other day that this team quit down the stretch. But anybody with two eyes or a stethoscope could confirm that’s what happened.

Teams don’t go 5-17 in September unless they’re devoid of talent, limbs or a heartbeat.

Quitting doesn’t mean 25 players unilaterally decided to avoid grass strains. There were some players — Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, a few others at any given moment — who clearly played with passion and weren’t in full-blown, direct-deposit mode. But with a playoff spot on the table, the Braves largely pushed away, looking like a team fueled by NyQuil and Yanni.

“Sometimes, the club has appeared a little lethargic,” interim general manager John Hart said.

He was being nice.

Change is needed, and Hart knows it.

He will run things for at least the next month or maybe longer, depending on the length of the Braves’ search for a new architect and whether it winds up with Hart mentoring a young assistant such as John Coppolella. He has spent the past week at the Braves’ instructional league, watching prospects and spending time with the scouting staff. He also has had a chance to analyze the Braves of this season as a senior advisor to Schuerholz.

His conclusions are about what you would expect.

Overall analysis: "We don't need an overhaul. It's not a disaster. But there are certainly some things we need to take a look, although I'm not at liberty to discuss names right now."

On the National League East: "Before I came here, I thought the Nationals would have a three-year run. I was shocked last year when they went into free fall, kind of like the Braves this year. Even if this club played at its full potential, I don't know if they were going to catch the Nationals."

On significant roster moves: They almost certainly will be through trades and not free agency. Hart: "There are economic challenges."

On the offense: "The team is not dynamic. You can say it's just one of those years or it's the wrong combination of players, but there's not a lot of team speed, and you can't play a lot of action baseball." He also referenced the decrease in power and "strikeouts are at an historical high."

On the lack of leadership: "The club is missing a veteran presence. It showed when the wheels came off and there was no go-to player. You don't need guys to holler or run around like their hair is on fire, but you need veterans, even if they're on the bench. When I was in Cleveland I made a point of signing guys like Eddie Murray, Tony Pena and Orel Hershiser."

Hart is correct in saying the Braves don’t need an overhaul. But making only cosmetic changes might not be sufficient and could further alienate a fan base that lost interest early this season. The Braves’ average announced attendance of 29,065 ranked 17th in the majors, represented a drop of 2,400 from 2013 and was the team’s lowest turnout since 2004.

The interim GM also referenced 2017, when the Braves are scheduled to move into their new stadium, as being “a focus” for the organization.

“I’m not saying 2015 and 2016 don’t matter, but 2017 is something everyone anticipates,” he said.

That mindset could trigger alarms for those wondering if the next two seasons don’t rank as a high enough priority. We’ll know more over the next few months. But this is a key offseason for the Braves’ potential rebuilding because of certain contract situations.

Some thoughts:

1. Dump B.J. Upton: Yes, the master-of-the-obvious statement. He's not disruptive, but he's far from being a unifying presence. He broods when things aren't going well. He's not a guy a team wants on the bench. It's unrealistic to believe the Braves will just release him with more than $46 million guaranteed left on the contract, but they will attempt a trade in which they take back somebody else's contract problem (which reportedly is what Frank Wren tried to do before the trade deadline). Any change of face would be an improvement because there's no expectation Upton will improve here next season.

2-3. Trade Justin Upton/extend Jason Heyward: Both have trade value. Both will be entering the final year on their respective contracts. The Braves need certain commodities: a leadoff hitter, an outfielder who can get on base, speed. Packaging Justin Upton with another player or prospects could fetch an everyday player in return. Heyward hit over .290 in the second half and with his defense, speed and ability to lead off he has greater everyday impact on the team than Upton. He also can be moved to center field.

4. Trade Evan Gattis: He's everybody's favorite story. But Christian Bethancourt likely will be the starting catcher next season and it makes more sense to have a veteran backup. Moving Gattis to left field is a possibility but it might be too, well, adventurous. He's ideal for an American League team, where he can DH.

5. Don't deal Craig Kimbrel: There won't be a lot of hands-off players in trade talks, but Kimbrel should be one. Some fans, mostly Sabermetric devotees who believe closers are overvalued, think Kimbrel should be dangled at the right price. I disagree. He's special, and a bullpen is built back-to-front. Also hands off: Freeman, Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Andrelton Simmons and probably Heyward.

“We will and we should look at everything,” Hart said. “But it’s early for that right now.”

First, there will be decisions on the general manager’s job, then on Fredi Gonzalez, whose future couldn’t have been helped by the recent spiral. Then the new plan will be formed. It needs to be significant and it needs to be loud because this was a season that too many slept through.