Braves fans have come to know the pain of disappointing seasons all too well over the last few years. With 2013 marking the beginning of a new age in Braves baseball, the question is and has to be, when does close enough become not good enough? And at what point does mediocrity necessitate change?
For me, it started in 2010. Jason Heyward was on his way in while Bobby Cox was on his way out. By all accounts, Chipper Jones had a few years left and the Braves would have the opportunity to mix old experience with young talent to get back to the Promised Land. That of course, did not happen. After four electric playoff games and four subsequent Brooks Conrad errors (three alone in Game 3) the Braves were sent home and Bobby Cox was left with a complimentary playoff appearance as his swan song.
But bad luck happens, right? Just regroup and remain positive, the rest will take care of itself. Well, that’s what the Braves did, for the most part. Fredi Gonzalez was hired to fill the shoes of a legend, and subsequently brought Dan Uggla aboard via trade, but all in all, the Braves soldiered forward much in tact from 2010.
The only problem was that somewhere in the slight regrouping faze, Atlanta failed to add that must-win mentality. So there you have the great collapse of September ’11 and the wave of questions that rained down on Gonzalez about his management of the team. Is it necessary to have Venters and Kimbrel throw in games that the Braves are losing? Is Brian McCann really the best option behind the plate? How on earth do you replace Chipper Jones when he decides that it’s time to go?
Gonzalez was eventually given a break and a pass for being a manager in his first season with the club. Once he could get his hands a little deeper into the organization, and pull the right strings, things would change. He was, after all, a Brave at heart, right?
Well, 2012’s team was almost exactly the same club that proved to be a disappointment just a year before. Everyone was a year older and probably two years wiser after their September meltdown, but on top of everything, Chipper Jones announced his upcoming retirement at the end of the season. There you have it, the perfect motivation to put the Braves back in the World Series. Chipper Jones won’t go out without one more bang. Fredi Gonzalez knows the team inside and out, he can’t possibly let such talent go to waste yet again.
Well for Chipper, there was a bang, though ultimately more self-inflicted than he might have liked, as he watched a routine double play ball sail out of his hand and into right field. Queue the enraged headlines and the “get ‘em next year’s” from Gonzalez and his staff. Wave goodbye to Chipper as you feverishly count the days until pitchers and catchers report.
That is one thing about the Braves that you can’t take away from them. They always keep us anxious for a new spring and a fresh start. There’s always a sense of urgency to cover up any embarrassment from the year before. But embarrassment has become too normal. Why can’t the Braves be that team that everyone has penciled in for an NL pennant and a World Series berth? The talent is there—Atlanta could see five or six guys blast 20-plus homeruns. So, who takes the blame if it doesn’t pan out?
Scapegoats are spreading like wildfire and it’s only March. First it was the strikeouts, then the starting pitching, now it’s the lack of leadership. For me, 2013 is about Fredi Gonzalez and Fredi Gonzalez alone. Management this season will be more important that ever, and if Atlanta isn’t celebrating something this October, I don’t see any reason why a fresh face in the manager’s office isn’t necessary. Between the Upton brothers relationship on the field and off, the handling of Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and the rest of the Braves rotation, and the calculated use of what could be a historical bullpen, Gonzalez has his hands full, but four years of disappointment is just too much. Get it done or get out. Hopefully Frank Wren will echo those sentiments.