In his first three seasons as manager of the Atlanta Braves, Fredi Gonzalez won 89 games or more each year. No other manager in the National League has won as many games as Gonzalez has over that stretch. With each of the last three seasons ending in disappointment, however, the jury is still out on Gonzalez’ ability as a manager. Between the Tommy John injuries on the pitching staff, Dan Uggla’s relationship with the organization, and the ongoing struggles of B.J. Upton, this season will provide the biggest test Gonzalez has faced as manager of the Braves.
There are several reasons why Gonzalez still has plenty to prove despite his regular season success. There is the shadow left by Bobby Cox, who is being enshrined in the Hall of Fame this summer because of his historic run with the Braves before Gonzalez’ arrival. Then there is the perception that Gonzalez’ teams fall apart when it matters the most, with Gonzalez specifically taking heat for the collapse in September 2011 and for not bringing in Craig Kimbrel in Game 4 of last year’s NLDS. Even when the Braves won the division last season, it came with the caveat that the favored Nationals had been crippled by injuries. Fair or not, Gonzalez is seen as an aloof manager who’s been more lucky than good.
There’s no doubt that if the Braves have success this season, Gonzalez will have to get some credit. The team’s pitching staff was decimated by injuries before the first pitch of the regular season, and the former strength of the team now appeared to be a major weakness. So far this hasn’t posed a problem, with Aaron Harang turning back the clock to 2006, but it will be interesting to see how Gonzalez manages the rotation when Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd come off the DL.
While Uggla hasn’t looked this good at the plate since his mysterious 33-game hitting streak in 2011, he’s still hitting under .200 through the first week and a half of the season. Uggla was left off the postseason roster last year after hitting an abysmal .179 during the season, and the organization spent the offseason looking for anybody willing to take him off their hands. Those two actions caused Uggla’s relationship with team management to be understandably strained, leaving Gonzalez in a tough position. As manager, Gonzalez has to try to convince Uggla he still has confidence in him, while at the same time realize that if Uggla continues to struggle he needs to look at Ramiro Pena or Tommy La Stella for production.
Then there’s B.J. Upton. After several reports of a revamped and improved swing during Spring Training, Upton has picked up right where he left off in 2013. He has more than three times as many strikeouts as he has hits so far this year, and still hasn’t shown any indication he can hit the ball to right field. There’s 75 million reasons why he will be given every chance to turn it around, but it’s hard to believe the Braves will be able to continue the success they had last year if B.J. Upton puts up a repeat performance. Like with Uggla, Gonzalez will have to walk the fine line between supporting his players and doing what’s best for the team.
Managing the pitching staff, along with handling Upton and Uggla, will test Fredi Gonzalez this year. If the team wins close to 90 games again this year with all they are up against, it would be hard to argue that Gonzalez isn’t one of the best managers in the league.
Walter Bergeson is an Atlanta Braves writer for Rantsports.com. Follow him on twitter @WalterBSports or add him to your circles on Google+