ATLANTA — On his first-ever regular season lineup card as an MLB manager, Fredi Gonzalez sat within the confines of Washington’s RFK Stadium and wrote three names at the top: Ramirez, Uggla, Cabrera.
The first was shortstop Hanley Ramirez, fresh off a 2006 Rookie of the Year campaign and now one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The third was Miguel Cabrera, kicking off his final season with the Marlins before moving on to Detroit to become the greatest hitter on the planet. Ramirez and Cabrera, in varying sample sizes, put up two of the top offensive campaigns in baseball this season.
The second name Gonzalez — then taking over the Marlins job for Joe Girardi following four seasons of apprenticeship under Bobby Cox in Atlanta — wrote down, of course, was Dan Uggla, then a 27-year-old fast becoming a power hitter rarely seen at the second base position. When Gonzalez accepted a Braves managerial position in October 2010 (after inexplicably being fired in Miami), Uggla followed one month later.
For every step of the way, Dan Uggla has been Fredi Gonzalez’s everyday second baseman.
Until Tuesday, that is, when Gonzalez broke the news to the struggling slugger that his name would not be included on the team’s NLDS roster.
Gonzalez described the conversation as “short” and “difficult” following a team workout at Turner Field on Wednesday afternoon.
“I couldn’t take the emotion out of it. Obviously, yesterday might have been one of the hardest days I’ve ever had to experience as a major-league manager. Closer to that might have been releasing a player at the last second or two days left in spring training, or something like that. Or sending a guy down to the minor leagues, somebody who had a really good spring training,” said Gonzalez, who led the Braves to the postseason for the second-consecutive year. “Yeah, it was difficult. But I think if you look at the scope of the entire team and you put the best 25 out there, it makes it a little easier, the decision. It was a difficult day, I’m not going to lie to you.”
Other players’ names were similarly absent from the Braves’ 25-man roster — Paul Maholm, Anthony Varvaro and Scott Downs spent a significant amount of time on Atlanta’s big-league club in 2012 — but it was clear, given the history, that the Uggla decision was the most strenuous on Gonzalez. There’s more history there than most player-manager relationships carry in the majors. But Uggla’s offensive numbers declined for the third-consecutive season, down to .179/.309/.362 with 22 home runs and a franchise-record 171 strikeouts. That dubious record broke his own mark from 2012, which, in turn, broke his previous franchise record set in 2011.
Not that numbers and statistics make such decisions any easier, but at least they offer an objective viewpoint for a manager trying to dig a franchise out of an 11-season drought of playoff series wins.
“Ultimately, you sit and talk with the coaching staff. We’ve been talking about this for a while, ever since we clinched. You try to put the best roster that you think is going to fit in a five-game series and put your best 25 out there,” Gonzalez said. “And without getting into too many details, this and that, we feel like we put our best 25 out there.”
In place of Uggla, who is the Braves’ highest-paid player this season at $13 million-plus, the Braves are carrying Elliot Johnson and Paul Janish. Johnson has played well since being picked up off waivers Aug. 21 and Janish is viewed strictly as a defensive replacement. As mentioned in both managers’ press conference on Wednesday, the only instance in recent memory of a team’s highest-paid player missing out on a playoff roster spot was Giants pitcher Barry Zito prior to San Francisco’s 2010 NLDS appearance versus … the Atlanta Braves.
Another highly compensated name that is irreversibly linked to Uggla’s for this 2013 season (and perhaps beyond) is that of B.J. Upton. The newly signed, 28-year-old outfielder finished in the bottom 10 for wins above replacement among MLB players with at least 400 plate appearances this season, even worse than Uggla by a considerable margin.
Upton made the NLDS team, though.
What’s the difference? Utility. Regardless of the fact that Upton is in the first year of a five-year, $75 million contract — teams want to put their best 25 players on the field, but an exclusion of a high-profile player you just signed to a substantial deal would be a steep admission of culpability for any front office; the third year of a contract is much more manageable — Upton still possesses tools that project to help the playoff roster. He’s a plus fielder for defensive purposes and his speed gives Gonzalez a pinch-running option even if the bat stays frigid.
Uggla is not as helpful in various bench roles. He’s stolen just seven bases total during his time in Atlanta and his defensive metrics (-19 defensive runs saved) graded out as the third-worst in baseball at any position. So if he’s not hitting and is not a threat on the basepaths and is a detriment in the field … well, this is where difficult decisions come in.
And who knows, if the Braves make the NLCS and subsequently the World Series, this may not be the end of Dan Uggla’s troublesome 2013 season, one which saw him struggle, undergo LASIK surgery and then play even worse. Gonzalez and the organization have the freedom to reevaluate with every step. There are certainly a few teammates still on the second baseman’s personal bandwagon, as he’s widely considered a likable clubhouse presence.
“You know, it’s tough. Dan’s one of my closest friends on the team,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “It’s just — I feel for him. He’s put so much hard work into the season since he’s been here. We all have his back here, he’s a great teammate.”
Maybe excluding Uggla from the NLDS roster was the best decision for the Braves roster. Maybe it’s the type of move that helps get the team over the playoff hump. Maybe the team misses the threat of a power bat at the bottom of the lineup and gets ousted in the divisional round yet again. That is all yet to be determined.
All we know for now is Uggla, for better or for worse, will not be a part of it, and his future in a Braves uniform is, at best, uncertain. For the first time in his managerial career, Fredi Gonzalez is moving forward without Dan Uggla. And no, it was not easy.