Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has a conundrum. He’s in a spot most major league managers don’t enjoy.
Gonzalez is in the final year of his contract. It’s safe to assume he wants to continue as Atlanta’s manager. Yet he has been handed a team that’s not expected to win this season. It’s a team building for the future, building for a new ballpark in 2017.
So what does Gonzalez do? Does he try to win, at all cost, to make his record look good? Does he believe the front office will retain him if he’s able to make a team not expected to win do something special? Or does he do what’s best for the organization, regardless of what the record is at the end of the year?
Once the Braves decided to keep Gonzalez, instead of firing him with general manager Frank Wren last year, they could have extended his contract. But they decided against it, at least for now. It appears Gonzalez is being judged on how he manages this mediocre team.
But there are things Gonzalez is doing the front office must question. The catching situation is baffling. In spring training, it was believed 23-year-old Christian Bethancourt would get the majority of the playing time, with 38-year-old veteran A.J. Pierzynski playing day games after night games. Instead, Bethancourt started slow, and when Pierzynski got the chance to play, he got some hits.
So about two weeks into the season, Gonzalez made Pierzynski the starter, with Bethancourt coming off the bench.
Gonzalez believed Pierzynski’s bat gave Atlanta a better chance to win. But the Braves are 7-4 with Bethancourt as the starter and only 5-10 with Pierzynski in the starting lineup. Plus, while Pierzynski is hitting 176 points higher than Bethancourt, there is a difference between the two catchers defensively.
When Pierzynski has been the catcher, Atlanta’s pitchers have an ERA of 5.24. But when Bethancourt is in there, the pitchers’ ERA is 2.88. So how much has Pierzynski being in the starting lineup really helped the team?
Beyond the numbers, this is a question about the future. The Braves need to see what Bethancourt can do. He always has been known for his defense. Some question whether he can hit consistently in the big leagues. But that’s what we need to find out, and this is the season to do it. If this was a pennant contender, it might be a different story, but this team is simply not in that category -- at least not yet.
Bethancourt needs to play, and you wonder if Gonzalez would be playing him more consistently if he was signed past this season.
On Sunday, Bethancourt had two hits against Cincinnati. But on Monday, Gonzalez had Pierzynski back in the starting lineup. That was the perfect chance to see if Bethancourt could get on track with regular playing time, but Gonzalez went with the veteran instead.
Gonzalez finally left second baseman Jace Peterson alone. Peterson supposedly won the job coming out of spring training, but then Gonzalez gave Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin starts at second. It looked like the same musical chairs situation that Gonzalez has in place at third base, left field and behind the plate.
Peterson was finally given consistent playing time, and the results are starting to show. He started the past 10 games entering Tuesday and hit .355 in that stretch. His batting average climbed 86 points once he had the consistent at-bats.
How is Bethancourt expected to improve when he’s blocked by a 38-year-old catcher who is likely to get traded in July anyway? Bethancourt is only going to improve once he plays every day, and Gonzalez is making a huge mistake not playing him.
These are the decisions that could dictate whether Gonzalez sticks around or not. His lineup construction and use of the pitching staff is bad enough, but the call to play the young kids is the most important to this franchise. So far, Gonzalez is failing this test by sitting a potential future starter on the bench.
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