The Atlanta Braves’ entire offseason could best be summed up by a piece of wisdom manager Fredi Gonzalez got recently from third base coach Bo Porter.
“How do you win wars?” Porter asked.
Fredi looked around quizzically: “Beats me. How?”
“With arms…and money,” Porter said.
Indeed, look at the players shipped out of Atlanta: outfielders Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis, all of whom already are or will soon be paid handsomely. The pieces received in return: cheap, controllable young pitchers, like Shelby Miller, Tyrell Jenkins, Max Fried, Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos, among others.
Gonzalez recounted that story during his visit to the Forsyth County Rotary Club’s meeting on Thursday afternoon, where he and Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell answered questions from a packed crowd.
For all of the frustration surrounding the revamped Atlanta front office’s decision to essentially tear down what was a 96-win, National League East-champion team in 2013, Gonzalez said the Braves’ goal, as with every year, is to make the playoffs.
“Everybody’s been saying 2017, when the new ballpark opens, but I don’t see it that way,” Gonzalez said.
While that is probably a rosy outlook, given the massive questions in the Braves lineup—such as, who’s going to play catcher, left field, and second base; can BJ Upton hit better than .208; can double-play machine Chris Johnson return anywhere near his 2013 form?—Gonzalez did have a point.
“We finished 29th in runs scored last year with those guys [Gattis, Heyward, Upton],” he said. “We’ve always won with pitching. Look at the teams that made the World Series last year…San Francisco [12th] and Kansas City [14th] didn’t score a ton of runs, either.”
Above all, the organizational goal this winter was to rebuild some depth that the farm system had lost in recent years. Upton and Gattis both are nearing 30 years old and at or near the peak of their value, and they brought good returns, most notably Fried, a 6-foot-4 left-handed pitcher who was the San Diego Padres’ first round pick (7th overall) and Foltynewicz, a 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher and the Houston Astros’ first round pick (19th overall) in 2010.
Gonzalez said Brian Snitker, the Gwinnett Braves’ (Triple-A affiliate) manager, told him that, for better or worse, the Braves had nobody in the farm system. Now, Gonzalez said he read on the website MLBTradeRumors.com, Atlanta’s system moved from the bottom-five in baseball to among the top-10.
In other words, while the Braves wouldn’t mind winning now, the franchise’s eyes are clearly set on 2017 and the opening of SunTrust Park in Cobb County.
News & Notes
— Gonzalez is hoping Mike Foltynewicz, who the Braves received from Houston on Wednesday as part of the Evan Gattis deal, will wind up as their fifth starter this year. Foltynewicz throws his fastball in the mid-to-upper-90s and has been clocked in triple digits to go along with a curveball and changeup that’s a work in progress. McDowell will work with him to clean up what has been an inconsistent delivery, Gonzalez said. Rio Ruiz, a third baseman also acquired from the Astros, could see time in the major leagues this season, too. Bo Porter, the former Astros manager now on Atlanta’s staff, loves both Foltynewicz and Ruiz, Gonzalez said.
— The organization is divided on 20-year-old middle infielder Jose Peraza, generally considered the Braves’ top prospect. Atlanta’s second-base job is up for grabs, with veteran Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin as Peraza’s main competition. “Jose will be attached at my hip in spring training,” Gonzalez said. “He might set the record for games played down there just so we can get a good look at him. After that, we’ll see.” Some minor league coaches want Peraza to stay in the minor leagues until June or July, but that could change. Gonzalez gave every indication that the Venezuelan would be in Atlanta sooner rather than later.
— As for who will play left field in Justin Upton and Evan Gattis’ stead, Gonzalez couldn’t say. During a phone conversation late Wednesday night with general manager John Hart and assistant John Coppolella, the three spoke about potential free agent options and about a platoon at the position, Gonzalez said.
— The Braves hired Gordon Blakeley away from the Yankees to shore up what had been a weak area for them, Gonzalez said: international scouting. Blakeley discovered and signed Robinson Cano and Orlando Hernandez for New York. “We were making a lot of mistakes internationally,” Gonzalez said. “If you look at it, really the only guy we’ve produced lately is Julio Teheran—that’s it.”
— McDowell said today’s players and coaches have it more difficult than ever, mostly thanks to social media. He told a story of a near-collision with a young Braves player in a Philadelphia hotel lobby—no greeting, nothing. McDowell, who is on Twitter, checked that player’s account, and the most recent Tweet: ‘Good morning, everyone.’ “That’s the way they operate these days,” McDowell said.