Growing pains in Atlanta, or big changes coming?
Seven months ago, the Braves signed general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez to contract extensions of unspecified lengths.
Now, in the wake of CEO Terry McGuirk’s "everybody is accountable" comment to Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz, is it possible that Wren and/or Gonzalez are in trouble?
Anything is possible with a team as frustrating as the Braves, a team that is fading from even wild-card contention and is next-to-last in the National League in runs per game.
Yet, people in the industry would be surprised if the Braves deviated from their normally stable course, unless tension is building underneath the surface in the front office and/or clubhouse.
Wren is close with McGuirk, according to major-league sources. Gonzalez was Wren’s hand-picked choice to replace Bobby Cox. And while both the GM and manager bear responsibility for the Braves’ malaise, certain facts are worth noting:
• The Braves, before the September roster expansion, were one of the youngest teams in the majors.
• Over the past five seasons, the Braves have won more regular-season games than any NL club and only one fewer than the major-league leading Yankees (Cox managed the first of those seasons).
Granted, the Braves have won only two postseason games in that stretch, while the Cardinals and Giants each have appeared in two World Series. But regular-season success is the best measure of organizational efficiency, and the Braves have attained it.
So, what is the problem?
Well, Gonzalez is the manager of a team that often looks clueless offensively, a failure that also reflects on hitting coach Greg Walker and his assistant, Scott Fletcher.
Wren, meanwhile, is the GM who awarded inflated contracts to second baseman Dan Uggla (since released with more than $18 million left on his deal) and center fielder B.J. Upton (whom the team has tried to trade in the second year of his five-year, $75.25 million contract).
The Upton deal was baffling — rival executives and even players were critical of it from the start, saying that Upton had accomplished little to warrant such an investment. Uggla, though, was on a Hall of Fame track when the Braves acquired him from the Marlins. Few anticipated that he would fall so hard, so quickly.
Wren’s signings of right-handers Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami also did not end well, but Lowe contributed in the first three seasons of his four-year, $60 million contract and several clubs targeted Kawakami before he joined the Braves on a relatively modest three-year, $23 million deal.
If Wren warrants criticism for those contracts, then he also deserves praise for his theft of Justin Upton, his last-minute signings of free-agent righties Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang in spring training, even seemingly minor moves such as his trade of righty Tommy Hanson for reliever Jordan Walden in November 2012.
Gonzalez overused his bullpen early in his tenure, occasionally sticks too long with slumping hitters and, like most managers, makes his share of head-scratching moves. But he also finished fifth, fourth and third for NL Manager of the Year the past three seasons.
"Everybody is accountable," McGuirk told the AJC’s Schultz. "You mentioned two guys who are accountable, I’m holding myself accountable. I don’t want to make any predictions. I don’t want to say even how or when meetings will occur. But if we don’t have success, know that we won’t be satisfied and we’ll be looking at things very hard."
Such an examination seems likely — the Braves are now just four games over .500 and three ahead of the Marlins. Again, changes are possible if the issues with Wren and/or Gonzalez run deeper than they appear. But right now, this looks like an organization that is simply going through growing pains.
The question is whether McGuirk will stay patient, or seek dramatic solutions.
WHY SMYLY IS THRIVING WITH RAYS
Left-hander Drew Smyly started for the Tigers on the afternoon of July 31, and after leaving the game received two or three texts, including one from his father, saying, "Are you about to get traded?"
Smyly thought, "What are they talking about?" but then he got on Twitter, saw what was going on and said to himself, "I think I might get traded." Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski eventually broke the news to Smyly, leaving him shocked.
Well, it turns out that the trade could be the best thing that ever happened to Smyly, who has produced a 1.70 ERA in his first seven starts for the Rays, albeit with an unsustainable .186 batting average on balls in play.
Smyly, 25, clearly is benefiting from the Rays’ advanced approached to analytics. Upon joining the team, club officials informed him that they had detected some of his lesser-known strengths by studying the numbers.
The Rays told Smyly to elevate his fastball more — sort of a counter-intuitive move for a pitcher — and they also emphasized that while he was successful getting to two strikes against right-handed hitters, he needed to find better ways to finish those hitters off.
Obviously, the biggest key for Smyly is executing pitches, but he said the Rays’ suggestions made a big difference in his approach. Makes you wonder why the Tigers didn’t pick up on the same things.
NO WIETERS, NO PROBLEM
Catcher Matt Wieters played only 26 games before requiring Tommy John surgery, a loss that figured to crush the Orioles. But the makeshift combination of Caleb Joseph, a 28-year-old rookie, and Nick Hundley, acquired from the Padres on May 24, has proven quite adequate.
Offensively, the duo has combined for an OPS right around the American League average at catcher. Defensively, they’ve handled the staff well, as evidenced by the catchers’ ERAs for all four Orioles catchers entering Monday’s play.
SPEAKING OF CATCHERS . . .
The Pirates want to keep Russell Martin, but the veteran’s price in free agency could soar beyond the team’s comfort level.
Martin, 31, will be the best and youngest catcher on the market by far, and the industry-wide understanding of defensive value at the position only has grown since he joined the Pirates on a two-year, $17 million free-agent deal after the 2012 season.
Catchers historically do not fare well in free agency, and Martin probably will not match the five-year, $60 million extension that the D-Backs awarded Miguel Montero in May 2012 for his age 30 to 34 seasons.
Still, Martin should at least beat the three-year, $26 million free-agent deal that the Phillies’ Carlos Ruiz signed last winter entering his age 35 season.
The Pirates could try to retain Martin with a one-year qualifying offer in the $15 million range, but they declined to extend such an offer to A.J. Burnett last off-season.
REDS’ HAMILTON: TRYING TO GET BETTER
The Reds’ Billy Hamilton, the leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year, says he is determined to improve his bunting this offseason.
Hamilton has 15 bunt hits, just one fewer than major-league leader Dee Gordon. But he said that teammates have offered to connect him with former base stealers such as Juan Pierre and Brett Butler — and that he is eager to work with such former players this offseason, wherever they may be.
Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips had interesting insight into Hamilton’s development.
"We’re just getting a glimpse of what he can really do," Phillips said. "He can be one of the best players in baseball once he figures out how good he can really be.
"It’s really up to him. He has the tools to be one of the best. But tools take you only so far. You have to believe in yourself, and figure out what makes you successful. Once he figures it out, like I did, he will be good. Nothing he does would surprise me."
YO, METS: DON’T TRADE MURPH
While the Mets are encouraged by the impressive debut of second baseman Dilson Herrera, that doesn’t mean they should trade Daniel Murphy, who is expected to return from a strained right calf on Tuesday.
Murphy’s .768 OPS is second on the team only to first baseman Lucas Duda’s .824, and he projects to earn about $8.5 million in his final year of arbitration before free agency — a reasonable price for a player of his ability.
The Mets, ninth in the NL in runs per game, already are short on offense. Murphy, 29, has proven he can play in New York and proven he can hit at Citi Field, though he has performed significantly better on the road this season.
No team will trade the Mets comparable offensive talent for Murphy, and this team is past the point where it should be acquiring prospects. Yes, Murphy is below-average defensively and perhaps better suited to a super-utility role. But if the Mets are smart, they will sign him to an extension rather than move him.
SUPER JOE IN AZ?
As the Diamondbacks interview a long list of GM candidates, don’t be surprised if White Sox third base coach Joe McEwing emerges as a possible replacement for manager Kirk Gibson.
McEwing, whom the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, previously mentioned as a possibility for Arizona, began his playing career with the Cardinals under Tony La Russa, the D-backs’ chief baseball officer.
According to published reports, La Russa admired McEwing so much, he requested a pair of autographed spikes from him after the Cardinals traded him to the Mets.
Even if McEwing does not land with the D-backs, his intelligence, energy and upbeat personality will make him a strong candidate for other jobs as well, White Sox officials say.
AROUND THE HORN
• The Brewers have averaged 2.5 runs per game during their stunning 1-12 collapse.
Center fielder Carlos Gomez recently was out of the starting lineup for a week with a sprained left wrist. Right fielder Ryan Braun continues to struggle with a thumb issue. The entire infield has slumped offensively, and even catcher Jonathan Lucroy isn’t hitting quite as well as he did in the first half.
Lucroy batted .315 with an .879 OPS before the All-Star break and has hit .274 with a .780 OPS since. His 1,048-1/3 innings at catcher rank third in the majors behind Salvador Perez and Miguel Montero. He also has played 105 innings at first base, adding to his workload.
• Orioles manager Buck Showalter and his staff love right-hander Kevin Gausman’s aptitude, toughness and what one coach describes as his "never-ending search to get better."
Gausman, 23, said that he naturally is very curious, and that he is constantly picking the brains of pitching coach Dave Wallace, bullpen coach Dom Chiti, Hundley and even the injured Wieters.
"I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t necessarily know that much," he said.
• And finally, Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu tells a cool Derek Jeter story involving his son, Luke, an infielder at Keller (Texas) H.S. who has a chance to be a first-round pick next June.
Don Wakamatsu scouted for the Yankees last season, and at one point asked Jeter to work with Luke while Jeter was rehabbing at the team’s training facility in Tampa, Fla.
Jeter spent two days with Luke, then sent him home with an autographed glove. Luke’s Twitter page features a photo of "The Captain" giving him pointers at short, both in full Yankees uniforms.
The only negative: Don Wakamatsu said that Luke’s arm got sore from trying to impress Jeter with his throwing.