Great things were expected out of this Atlanta Braves team. With a core group of players returning from career-best seasons, and young players growing into new roles, the excitement at the onset of spring training was hard to ignore.
While nearly half of the team’s rotation went down in March, the front office was able to find replacements and field a team that posted baseball’s second-best record in April (17-9). But it’s been all downhill from there, and after an abysmal 4-14 September, the team has slipped three games below .500 and was eliminated from playoff contention with Sunday’s loss to the Mets.
What will be the outcome of this disastrous stretch run, the team’s second massive September collapse in the past four years? Will coaches be fired? Could there be a massive shake-up in the front office? Which players will be sent packing this offseason? Let’s take a look at some of the possible consequences to the Braves disastrous 2014 season.
Someone in charge will be fired
The calls for someone’s head in Atlanta are getting louder as the inevitability of playoff elimination turned into reality yesterday. These calls have come from fans, but they have also been hinted at by beat writers who sense a difference in the clubhouse and the organization.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren are the two most likely candidates to feel the wrath of the Braves' second-half collapse.
The primary knock against Wren is the ill-advised, long-term, big-money contracts he’s given to players who have come to Atlanta and flopped.
Derek Lowe was paid by the Braves not to play for them in the final year of his disappointing contract. Kenshin Kawakami became the highest-paid pitcher to spend most of a season in Double-A. Dan Uggla was jettisoned with almost $20 million remaining on his contract, and B.J. Upton has three years and over $45 million left on his contract.
With a payroll that ranks as the 13th-highest in baseball, Atlanta can’t afford to make so many mistakes with high-dollar contracts. Those repeated mistakes could culminate in a new direction for the Atlanta front office.
In the dugout, Fredi Gonzalez has come under fire for his suboptimal lineups, which feature poor on-base guys like B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons at the top of the order. The team’s best leadoff option has been Jason Heyward (.351 on-base percentage), but Gonzalez has only listed him first in 94 of the team’s 154 games.
Upton has been used 36 times to leadoff and 55 times to hit second in the lineup while posting just a .282 on-base percentage in each spot. Those lineup decisions have cost the Braves run-scoring opportunities and wins.
The players deserve some of the blame for their poor performance, but it shouldn’t take 90 games for a manager to figure out that a guy who didn’t get on base last year isn’t going to get on base this year.
Gonzalez also seems unable to motivate his players or rally them towards better performances. The loss of veterans Brian McCann and Tim Hudson last offseason left a leadership void in the clubhouse that remains unfilled. What is needed is a manager to step in and fill that void, a role Gonzalez has either not recognized or is unable to fill.
Several days ago I laid out more reasons why both Wren and Gonzalez should be canned, eventually settling on Gonzalez as the one who definitely needs to go.
Recent rumblings from Braves.com beat writer Mark Bowman suggest that Frank Wren will be the one to go, possibly before the season ends.
B.J. Upton must be traded
According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, the Braves tried to trade B.J. Upton at this year’s July 31 deadline. That rumored move may have also included other players departing Atlanta and was intended to shake up the clubhouse and give the team a new look.
That sentiment should be repeated in earnest this offseason. Atlanta has collected too many players with too many strikeouts. Last year’s team set a franchise record for most batter’s strikeouts in a season, and this year’s club may challenge that record.
While the strikeouts were tolerable last year because they were accompanied by good on-base (.321) and slugging numbers (.402), this year’s squad has posted the lowest team on-base percentage (.306) and slugging percentage (.362) since 1989. When players aren’t getting on-base or hitting for power, the strikeouts they’re accumulating come into sharper focus.
The 2015 Braves must have fewer players who are prone to large strikeout totals, and more players who can get on base above league average (.312). The guy who has become the poster boy for these problems is B.J. Upton.
When the Braves signed Upton, they knew they were getting a player who struck out a lot, but they thought they were also getting a player with good on-base and power skills. His on-base (.336) and slugging percentages (.422) in eight years with the Tampa Bay Rays was much higher than they have been in two seasons with Atlanta (.276 OBP, .311 SLG).
A star player will be traded
In order to rid themselves of B.J. Upton, the Braves may be forced to part with a player of value. What team in its right mind would take Upton and his contract if it wasn't also receiving something useful? The top three candidates to depart this offseason are Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis.
Both Heyward and Justin Upton can become free agents at the end of next season. Atlanta may not have the money to sign both players, and trading one or both of them now, instead of at next year’s trade deadline, could return the most value.
While Evan Gattis is still four years away from free agency, the presence of catching prospect Christian Bethancourt could make Gattis expendable. His value as a slugger is higher to an American League team, who could use Gattis both behind the plate and as a designated hitter. As a young player who is still a year away from arbitration, Gattis also represents a low-cost player who would offset the cost of the overpaid B.J. Upton for any potential suitor.
Starting pitcher Mike Minor could also be a player included in an offseason trade. While Atlanta will be looking for starting pitching this winter, Minor’s increasing price tag via arbitration could make him expendable when the team searches the free-agent and trade markets for lower-cost options.
The Braves’ sudden collapse has been tough to watch. After showing so much promise in the opening weeks of the season and leading the NL East for 74 days, the whimper with which they are ending the season will not come without consequences.
As the team’s elimination became official yesterday, upper management may not wait for the official end of the season to issue pink slips to those coaches or managers they deem at fault for the club’s failings. Pretty soon we won’t have to simply speculate about what the consequences will be for the 2014 Braves’ disappointing season.
All stats are through the games of September 20 and taken from Baseball-Reference.com. All standings are through games of September 21.
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