Last night’s complete collapse at Houston after taking an early lead was disheartening, discouraging, disastrous and unnecessary. Even before the game fans were astonished and perplexed over Fredi Gonzalez’ lineup card that included Matt Diaz in right field instead of Jason Heyward and notorious strikeout waiting to happen against lefties Juan Francisco at third. It made no sense to the fans I talked with to sit Heyward after losing 3 games in four days or play Francisco. They were right to be worried.
With all due respect to an Astros franchise devoid of talent because of bad management and horrible contracts over the past seven years, they are essentially a AAAA team in mass rebuilding mode. The only recognizable major league talent in their lineup last night were the aging, lumbering Carlos Lee, Atlanta reject Jordan Schafer and pitcher J. A. Happ. If they win more than 75 games this year they will consider it a success. Contending teams should take every series against them yet, they were the team that played competent, solid, fundamental baseball while the Braves looked like a trailer for the new Three Stooges movie. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s completely unacceptable from a team that expects to challenge for a division title and points directly at the leadership or more specifically lack of leadership of Fredi Gonzalez.
Manager’s Lead, Player’s Follow
Early last year it was obvious that Fredi Gonzalez was less than strategically adept at running a game. As the year wore on he was consistently out maneuvered in high leverage situations by opposing managers and continued to misuse/over use his bullpen. His insistence on using Scott Proctor in relief in game changing situations even though it was obvious to all he had not been effective all year, cost at least five wins. His use of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel in non-save/non-hold situations after specifically saying he was going to rest them contributed to their tired arms in September. Through all of that bumbling the team’s talent – specifically the pitching staff’s terrific performance – kept the Braves in a race their offense was not good enough to contend with, until the worn down arms just couldn’t carry the team anymore.
I understand that the players have to do their job to win games and in a perfect world they would just go out and play at their peak without outside influence. But this isn’t a perfect world, players are people who must be used correctly to perform at their best. Players have good days and bad days, feel pressure to over perform when others under perform. A baseball team like all well functioning groups need positive, knowledgeable leadership to make sure they don’t relax while riding high or collapse when things aren’t going well. I’ve seen no evidence that Gonzalez provides that. He’s shown no fire in the dugout, no passion to win and no leadership when the team struggled. During the September Surrender he kept saying we just have to win tomorrow. The players predictably assumed that attitude over time as well. They didn’t win, they ran out of tomorrows and so far haven’t converted a tomorrow into victory this year. They will of course but will they do it often with Gonzalez at the helm?
Gonzalez is not a player’s manager. He’s rarely seen backing up players when a they are visibly upset at a call. Last year calm cool quite Brian McCann was almost ejected over a series of bad calls. The umpire thank goodness gave McCann some slack and he stayed in the game. Gonzalez didn’t appear until between innings at least two batters later. More often than not when Gonzalez chose to argue the call wasn’t close enough that the coach or players involved raised an eyebrow. Even the announcers seemed bemused at some of his reactions. He became famous (infamous?) for reacting too late to happenings on the field and for tipping his hat to teams who beat the Braves when we should have stomped on them instead.
Know your Team – Know Your Opposition
Now it’s 2012 and in spite of a collapse unlike any seen outside of Boston last year nothing has changed with Gonzalez. Immediately after the season he and Frank Wren were all over the place with their comments and John Scheurholz felt compelled to write an open letter to the fans. However nothing significant was done to the roster all winter – save dumping Derek Lowe – until the last 72 hours of spring training when the GM signed a group of . . . umm . . .players unlikely to produce great or even good results this year. And Fredi Gonzalez still had his job.
I got to meet Gonzalez during the last weekend of spring training when I attended a (poorly organized) fan event after the Sunday game where Gonzalez and and Matt Diaz did a Q&A. The first question was about our inability to hit with RISP during 2011. Gonzalez answered that we were working hard on that and had seen progress. He singled out Jordan Parraz for praise saying that he told Parraz after he drove in a run in the bottom of the 8th inning that he liked and appreciated what he had done by giving himself up to bring the run in. He said he told Parraz:
|“. . . that’s the way guys get a 100 RBI, by taking a run when the other team is giving it to you instead of punching out.” He went on to say, “(Driving in runs) is something that’s not easy. These guys are facing 90mph sinkers and sliders and the guy on the mound doesn’t want you to drive in the run so it isn’t easy but we are working on doing better at that.”|
When it was my turn I asked the skipper if the Francisco being out of options meant he would be with the team all year. Gonzalez replied that even though he was out of options he had to earn his spot and prove he could play at a major league level.
I wondered immediately if that wouldn’t have been a good thing to know before they made the trade. I think most will agree that last night showed why Cincinnati was eager to move Francisco and that he’s not major league ready in spite of his power. Yes it was his first start but not his first major league game (he had 81 before this season) so nerves should not have been an issue and if they were he’s not ready. Reds fans call him an error machine. You don’t earn that title without a reason. Knowing before a trade isn’t Gonzalez job however, that responsibility falls to Frank Wren who reportedly had been trying to “pry Francisco from Cincinnati for a long time.”
Parraz did not make the active roster even though he had consistently out performed (proved he deserved the spot) Jose Constanza during spring training, was right handed and a better outfielder. In a quote elsewhere Gonzalez said Constanza was a second leadoff man. Uh no, he’s not. Oh and so far this year hitting with RISP is still not something we do consistently no matter how much improvement he thinks was made.
Then I asked about our failure to get a right handed outfield bat and why when everyone said we were looking for that kind of player, the players we were said to inquire about were left handed? I said I recognized that Adam Jones was overpriced but why Seth Smith or Will Venable? He said there was a shortage of right handed bats. I said there were some and asked why not Chris Denorfia for example? After shuffling his papers and sputtering a bit he said:
|“Yeah if you want to give up Beachy or Teheran.”|
WHAT? I almost fell out of my chair. Q&A’s aren’t interviews so I couldn’t followup and ask why he thought Denorfia was so highly prized but I’m sure he was tap dancing instead of answering. You see unlike my faithful reader (yes, I have one), Gonzales obviously wouldn’t know Chris Denorfia from the man in the moon. To refresh everyone’s memory here’s a quick profile.
Denorfia’s a 31 year old right handed hitting outfielder for the San Diego Padres. He’s their fifth outfielder behind Cameron Maybin. Venable, Carlos Quentin (when he returns after having his knee scoped), and prospect Kyle Blanks, with Jeremy Hermida close behind him. At 31 and not yet second year arbitration eligible, Denorfia’s not a prospect any longer nor is he a long term solution for the Padres or for us. He fits our current needs because he’s:
- Inexpensive earning roughly what we will pay Livan Hernandez with bonuses this year,
- Can play all three outfield positions (though he is better at the corners),
- Hits left handed pitching with a .313/.387/.442 line, 4 homers, 20 RBI and a near 1:1 K/BB ratio in 224 ABs over the last three years,
- Can hit leadoff or second effectively if needed. His .281/.336/.403 line in 196 ABs over the last three years as leadoff man isn’t eye popping but as a backup with only a few at bats now and then it’s not bad and
- Hits well at Turner field, .368/.400/.579 in 19 ABs and against the Braves .348/.444/.522 in 23 ABs.
He’s all of those things but he’s San Diego’s fifth outfielder. I know Josh Byrnes drives a hard bargain and Frank Wren has proven to be a soft touch (See Juan Francisco trade) but no one in their right mind would seriously ask for Brandon Beachy or any of out top prospects in return for Denorfia.
Within the last month we sent Jairo Asencio to Cleveland for cash considerations (probably to free up money for a signing; maybe Hernandez) and J.J. Hoover to Cincinnati for Francisco. I doubt Byrnes would have turned down two solid if not high level prospect relievers for a 31 year old fifth outfielder.
While I don’t expect a manager to know every available player, he should know players who hit us well. He should certainly know the Padres starting outfielders since they went after Venable and their best prospect (Blanks) from the fifth man in their depth chart.
Is Fredi Gonzalez the only problem the Braves have? No. Frank Wren’s judgment in transactions has to be in question as well. Gonzalez is however the individual most affecting the team’s performance on a daily basis. The only players who’ve shown any fire in their belly so far are Martin Prado – who’s passion is seemingly unquenchable – and rookie Tyler Pastornicky who plays his heart out because he’s a rookie, wants to stay with the big club and has not yet been infected by the Gonzalez uninspired leadership. Those two were the ones who drove in our first runs this year – Prado with a two run homer and TP with our first hit in 2012 with RISP. Gonzalez is first on the chopping block (pun intended) for good reason.
Gonzalez makes out the lineup that’s been failing in spite of all of the talent on display.
He alone chose to play Francisco instead of Heyward in what he should have considered a must win game.
He’s the one bringing a 37 year old (at least) starting pitcher who had 1 career relief appearance – in his first game - into high leverage situations where he has no experience.
He’s the one who decided Jose Constanza was a better choice than Jordan Parraz or Luis Durango who both out played Constanza this spring.
He makes the decisions about pinch hitting and bullpen use. So far those decisions have not been good decisions.
As we were leaving the Q&A on Sunday Gonzalez asked what I was going to do with the video I took that day.(Yes I do have video .) It seemed an odd question for a fan event where cameras and video had to be expected. Perhaps he realized his Denorfia faux pas. If so he decided to move on rather than amend the comment. Perhaps he’s afraid he’ll end up on YouTube. (The video isn’t that good, or funny trust me. I have a lot of good shots of the table top and lectern.) Perhaps he’s started feeling the pressure of a fan base that doesn’t understand how a talented team like this can lose so easily to lesser squads. If he’s not feeling it he must be in one of his notable dazes. Someone should wake him soon because if the team continues to play like it has so far he may well find he has a lot more time to ride his Harley.
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