Will rebuilding Braves give Gonzalez latitude?

There is a two-tier pecking order in the Braves’ clubhouse at spring training. Walk through the main door, and a visitor immediately faces the recognizable nameplates about lockers. Turn left, go past a wall that divides the room, and the statuses, and it’s like taking a three-second Greyhound to the minors.

But this spring, there is no clear pecking order. There are players and jobs and most of the lines connecting columns A and B are in pencil. It’s not quite an open tryout. But it’s not far from, “Hi, I’m Bob from accounting. I just transferred from the Akron office.”

“Hi, I’m Eric Young,” said one of the Braves’ non-roster invitees, as he walked across the room to shake hands with Phil Gosselin.

“I just realized we have three guys named Johnson,” closer Craig Kimbrel said, looking around the room.

“It’s like the first day of school,” said Chris Johnson, the only returning Johnson.

It’s only spring. It’s a little early to dump on the Braves. They haven’t even played an exhibition game yet. Besides, if they’re really going to be as bad as a 90-loss team, as Las Vegas is forecasting, there will be plenty of time to dump on them later.

But here’s a question worth asking now: If this strip-down-and-rebuild project will be as short-term painful as many believe, what does it mean for Fredi Gonzalez?

Not surprisingly, the Braves’ manager was concerned he might be fired after last season. It wasn’t until after general manager Frank Wren and assistant Bruce Manno were fired, and team president John Hart told Gonzalez “two or three days” after the season that he would be retained (before it was announced publicly) that Gonzalez felt any sense of job security.

“Relieved,” he said.

“How many times does the general manager and the assistant general manager get fired and they keep the head coach? Not often, right? It’s usually the other way around.”

It wasn’t an overwhelmingly popular decision in the fan base, even if a case could be made that the Braves’ fizzles in the past few seasons were more the result of faulty roster construction, the lack of clubhouse chemistry and under-performing, overpaid players than in-game decisions.

Regardless, it’s clear the organization has pushed the reset button. It’s equally clear that, despite Gonzalez’s hopeful comments to the contrary, he hasn’t been handed an expected pennant contender.

The Braves would like to win now. They’re certainly going to say they can win now because that’s what everybody says in February and March. But the objective of this rebuild is not winning now but rather in a year, or two, or three.

Will Gonzalez be given enough rope to stick around that long? He was kept after a 79-win season and some screamed. Seventy-nine wins might be a reach for this team. Should Gonzalez be given a relative pass for losing season?

If this is up to former manager Bobby Cox, Gonzalez shouldn’t have to worry about job security. When asked whether Gonzalez will be given some latitude, Cox said, “I think he will. He should. Absolutely.”

I’m just not sure how realistic that is. It seems just as possible management figured they would let Gonzalez manage through a relative throwaway season, then make a change when they’re on the verge of contending again — right about the time they’re getting ready to move into a new stadium.

But if he can win this season, that would smother critics.

It’s difficult to tell if Gonzalez was excited or nervous about the changes this offseason. His comments suggest both. He was apprised of roster plans by Hart and assistant John Coppolella, who took over as co-architects for Wren. He watched as Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis, three of the team’s four biggest offensive weapons, were dealt for mostly prospects. Freddie Freeman stands as the lone survivor.

He said this Braves team reminds him of his Florida teams of 2008 and 2009, when the Marlins surprisingly won 84 and 87 games in consecutive years. He said he loves the “flexibility” of being able to use different players in the lineup.

“I may come to the stadium one day and, depending on the matchup, think, ‘How about if we use eight left-handers in the lineup?’”

Easy, boy.

But when he’s not reading from the manager’s book of hopeful spring quotations, Gonzalez is realistic.

Asked about the Heyward and Upton trades, he said, “It’s tough on a manager sometimes because you know you’re going to be judged on winning and losing games. But you understand the big picture.”

Does he feel comfortable that he’ll be judged fairly this season, relative to expectations?

“I think at the end you still get judged on wins and losses. I’m happy and grateful I’ve been given a chance to stay on. I want to stay on forever.”

Gonzalez said the 2008 Marlins probably had two or three players in camp assured of starting jobs: Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Josh Willingham. He thinks it’s a similar situation with the Braves this season, with Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and Kimbrel (closer).

The Braves again will lean on a young rotation and the bullpen and hope that an ever-morphing lineup can produce enough runs to win games. Before the first full-squad workout next week, Gonzalez will tell his players about open jobs and opportunities and how, in the big picture, nothing has changed.

“My expectation is, no matter what, to get to the postseason,” he said. “Las Vegas makes those projections, but you never know what’s going to happen. A lot of good things can happen for us, and a lot of bad things can happen for other teams.”

It all sounds great in February, even if reality might prove otherwise. But he was given another year to hope.