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 the last of the three-part interview.
How confident are you that Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis will have improved production this season, Freddie being healthy and Nick after a full offseason of conditioning and strength work that he couldn’t do a year ago?
Both. And I know Nicky hasn’t shown it in spring training, but he’s walking around, he’s strong, you see him and it’s a different body (than last year). I’m not worried about his spring training numbers, and I think he will have a better season power-wise. And I think with Freeman we dodged a big bullet. I think he’s going to be fine. He’s proven that – he’s played almost every game in spring training. I think going forward, it’s one of those things where we’re going to give him a day off every once in a while. He’s a guy that wants to play all 162 and every inning, and I think there’s going to be times where we’re going to sit down and talk and say, hey, I want you the whole season, because having you for three months last year really sucked. He wanted in there (in the lineup every day) and I love him for that, but you know what, every once in a while let’s give you a break.
How do you see the closer situation shaking out at the beginning of the season?
I’ve thought about that a little bit. It all depends. It’s comforting to know Vizcaino did a nice job for us last year (as closer last season after Jason Grilli got hurt and Jim Johnson was traded). It really is. We’ve got (a few more) days here and Grilli has proven he’s healthy. And I think one reason he was successful last year was, we took care of him. And I feel the same way this year. He’s 39 years old, a lot of pitches thrown, and we’ll play it by ear. But I feel both of those guys (Grilli and Vizcaino) are very capable of closing the back end of games.
One other thing: Were you surprised or miffed that your team, with two Cuban coaches, two Cuban players and yourself, the only Cuban manager, wasn’t invited to play the exhibition game against Cuba this spring and that none of you were invited on the MLB goodwill trip to Cuba during the winter?
I was, and then I talked to the commissioner (Rob Manfred) on the off day. He called and I talked to him, because (John) Schuerholz had kind of expressed something to that (effect). I was more taken aback on the goodwill trip in the winter time. Nobody gave me a reason and nobody needs to give me a reason, but I was taken aback that I didn’t get invited or a phone call. And he called me and we talked, and he said it was more (players) union-driven that it was Major League Baseball. And he said some good things. And I think it’s good. We’ll see what happens; both countries are still far apart from being where we want them to be, but I think it’s a good thing to open up that avenue anyway.