LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Braves are in the midst of a rebuilding project, coming off a 95-loss season that was the franchise’s worst in a quarter-century. Fredi Gonzalez is in what many would view as an unenviable position, entering his sixth season as manager and signed only through 2016, with a starting rotation and bullpen severely limited by a payroll that ranks in the bottom quarter of baseball, and an offense that ranked last in the majors in runs.
The long-term future looks bright for the Braves, whose 15-month trading frenzy beginning in November 2014 brought back enough prospects, particularly pitchers, to turn a minor league system ranked among baseball’s worst into what one expert has rated the best, most talent-rich system in baseball. But what about 2016? What about Gonzalez’s future?
Gonzalez sat down for a Q&A with me in the final week of spring training. This is Part 2 of the interview. (Here’s a link to Part 1.)
How much pressure do you feel, if any, being in the last year of your contract and with a new ballpark opening in 2017?
The same pressure I always feel managing, whether it’s a one-year deal, a three-year deal…. You still want to compete. You still want to win. You can still get fired. Whether you’ve got an eight-year deal or a one-year deal, you can still get fired. It doesn’t matter. I want to win, and we want to develop these kids. And that’s my biggest thing. And I think you can do both – I think you can develop and I think you can win games. I’m not going to say we’re going to go out and win 110 games or any of that crazy stuff, but as far as pressure I don’t feel any different from any other year.
We saw a lot of (center-field prospect) Mallex Smith this spring before he got sent down. What does he still need to work on?
I think he’s just got to polish his game, he’s just got to play. Like yesterday I was looking at the (minor league) game reports – they don’t believe me when I tell them I look at the game reports even during spring training – he’s at second base, and it’s (runners at) first and second, nobody out and a 3-0 count, and he gets picked off at second. Those are the things that he needs to polish up. The talent is there and you see it, but he needs to play the game where the coaches and the manager in the major leagues trust him. And that’s all just playing the game, getting repetitions. That’s all it is. He didn’t play a whole lot (before being drafted). Things like, don’t get picked off, don’t over-slide third – those little things that he can polish. But the talent is there, no question. I mean, this kid can run, he can hit the ball, he can throw the ball to the right base.
Do you think the NL East will be tougher this season, and are the Mets a clear favorite in your view?
I don’t know who’s the favorite. There’s two teams that are obvious, you’ve got the Mets and Washington. You’ve got to give them some credit that they’re the good clubs. They’ve both got good pitching. I think the Marlins got better in the offseason. You’ve still got to play out the schedule. I don’t know the depth of the Mets. I don’t know the depth of the Nationals, or the Marlins. We’re all going to have injuries. Can they withstand the injuries by having some depth? I don’t know. It’s going to be a tough division.
Will there be good vibes or nostalgia for you in the final year at Turner Field?
Yeah, it’s a good place. A place where I got to sit (as third-base coach) next to a Hall of Famer (former manager Bobby Cox). I got to watch three Hall of Famers, and a fourth coming. I wasn’t there when Tommy Glavine was there, but the other three – Smoltzy, Maddux, Chipper and Bobby – you sit in that dugout and man, there’s five Hall of Famers there. I got to see four of them personally, in that stadium. That doesn’t happen very often.
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