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.
That payroll isn’t going to be raised significantly until the team moves into a new ballpark in 2017, at which point they aim to be a contender. But in the meantime, the Braves want badly to avoid another debacle of a season like the one they endured a year ago, when injuries and July trades turned a surprisingly solid 42-42 start into second-half nightmare and the first consecutive losing seasons for the Braves since 1989-1990. They want some momentum going int0 2017.
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 1 of the interview.
What do you like about your team for 2016?
I like our offense. I think we’re going to score more runs, I really do. In just watching our spring training, there’s a couple of guys in the lineup, Inciarte and Aybar, who are just going to give you professional at-bats, and they’re going to keep the line moving. Having Garcia in the middle of the lineup, he gives you a chance to have some thump. I like that. I really like that we’re going to score some runs. I also like our depth, some of the guys that are not even going to make the team, like (Aaron) Blair, who’s right around the corner, then you’ve got (Tyrell) Jenkins, (Ian) Krol, (Hunter) Cervenka, this kid (Kyle) Kinman is pitching well every time we use him. We added Tyler Moore just the other day…. You feel like there’s some depth there that we didn’t quite have last year.
What concerns do you have about this team?
Well, I don’t have a third catcher. That’s the biggest concern I have. (Laughs.) No, I think the concern is your pitching staff. It really is. And that bullpen, I feel comfortable with Grilli, Vizcaino and Johnson. But some of the other guys…. O’Flaherty, there’s a comfort there. But I think our bullpen – we lost a lot of games last year in the sixth and seventh innings. Hopefully we can patch up that hole there.
Do you agree the offense should be significantly better, or at least better?
It should be better. Just because of Inciarte and all those guys. We saw a little snapshot of Garcia (in 2015). What, 10 home runs in 200 at-bats? Let’s say he hits you 18 or 20 home runs – I think 20 is a big number; I think if he gives you 15 or 18, that’s significantly better from that position (than in 2015). I like what I’ve seen from Olivera. I think he’s a guy that, the home-run numbers might not be there yet, because power comes late at the major league level. But he’s been able to drive in runs in spring training, and he puts the ball in play.
Did you see enough of the pitching prospects this spring to get a feel for how many of them might realistically be able to help you this spring?
I did. I kind of answered that a little bit (earlier), with Blair, Jenkins, and there’s a kid right now (late in spring training) battling for a spot, (John) Gant. He’s opened some eyes, and so whether he makes it or doesn’t make it, he doesn’t go away, he’s part of (the organization). And I feel comfortable with those three guys, that they could really help us during the course of the season.
What about position players? Because frankly I was surprised by how far along Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson seemed to be, in terms of being close to ready for the major leagues.
I’m really excited about the future of the Atlanta Braves with those young kids, those position players. Swanson, Albies, Mallex Smith. And then there’s another little wave coming that may be closer than we think – Rio Ruiz, the kid that we have seen (center fielder Ronald) Acuna, and (third baseman) Austin Riley. I mean, they’ve been talking about these two kids (Acuna and Riley). I’m really excited about our position players as an organization.
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