The Braves continue to struggle. They lost to the Dodgers 6-2 Monday night in a sloppy game at Turner Field. Atlanta is now four games out of first place behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East.
The numbers tell the story. The record is now 60-58. The Braves are 8-15 since the All-Star Break. Since the 17-7 start, Atlanta has gone 43-51.
There are problems here, major problems. First, the Braves fans are not showing up. There were only 20,053 paid Monday night. The nationally televised game on ESPN Sunday night was seen by only 18,191 – in a game against the division rival Washington Nationals.
Are the fans losing interest? They don’t seem to like this team. People are skeptical about the ability for the Braves to get into the playoffs. And even if the Braves squeak in, do they really have the roster to do anything special?
Fans are smart and they seem to sense this team may not have the chemistry to win a title. There doesn’t seem to be much camaraderie. The hugs aren’t there much anymore.
And now there are signs of trouble in the clubhouse, enough to ask the question: Is there any respect on this team – for each other, for the manager, for the Braves way?
Several things have happened the last few weeks that are troubling. First, on Monday, July 21, Justin Upton did not hustle on a ground ball to Miami second baseman Jordany Valdespin, who despite bobbling the ball threw Upton out in a 1-1 tie game in the bottom of the 8th inning. The Braves would lose that game 3-1 in 10 innings.
After the game, manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “That’s not the way we play the game. I’m going to mention something to him about that.”
But the very next day, Upton was in the starting lineup. When reporters asked about what Gonzalez had said to him, Upton said, “That’s between me and my manager.” Then when asked about the play Upton said, “I hit a ground ball to second base and then I ran to first base. Just another play in the game.”
First of all, Gonzalez made a major mistake by putting Upton in the starting lineup the day after admitting that he did not hustle on a play. How can members of the team respect Gonzalez if they read him berate a player for not hustling and yet still play him the very next day?
Then, Upton’s comments were awful. It’s okay if he doesn’t want to talk about what Gonzalez said to him. But to believe it was “just another play in the game” is absolutely unacceptable. He should have not played that night, and after that comment Upton should have been on the bench again for his apathetic comment.
We need to have an acronym that can cut to the chase of this: WWBCD – What would Bobby Cox do?
Do you believe Cox would have put up with that? No way. He would have dealt with it and nipped that in the bud.
Justin’s brother, B.J., has also had several plays where his hustle has been questioned. And we know his batting average, or lack of one, has been an issue all season. Yet when the Braves acquired Emilio Bonifacio from the Cubs on July 31, Gonzalez was asked if Bonifacio would replace Upton as Atlanta’s leadoff man.
His response was, “I want to keep my guy (Upton) there (the leadoff spot).” Well, at the time, his guy Upton was hitting just .250 in 31 games as the leadoff man with a .304 on base percentage. Those numbers are down even more now, as Upton has hit .220 in 36 games as the leadoff man with a .282 on base percentage.
Bonifacio has now batted first in the Atlanta lineup for four of the last six games. Upton did not play in two of those other four games and hit eighth in the lineup in the other two.
Then Sunday night, something else happened. We had a caller on our radio show call up Monday afternoon and let us know that he saw B.J. Upton curse Fredi Gonzalez after his manager put him in as a pinch-runner in the 8th inning. So we went and looked at the video.
Now, we cannot post a sound bite, since it’s very difficult to hear through announcer Dan Shulman’s call of the game. Your best bet is to go and watch the part of the game on the archives of the broadcast if you have MLB.com. It’s at 3:08:01 on the video. Listen carefully and see what you hear Upton say to LaRoche.
It appears Upton says that the “mother *******” (referencing Gonzalez) got him up two innings ago and didn’t use him and then got him up again with no warning to pinch-run for Gattis. Regardless of what was actually said, as far as word-by-word, it’s obvious Upton was not happy with his manager.
This is the same manager that when Upton was hitting .215 kept him in the lineup, and even if Gonzalez was instructed to do so by the front office, he did it and publicly took up for Upton.
Yet Upton gets on base and curses Gonzalez? Give me a break.
Upton makes $83,024.69 for every game. And he’s complaining that his boss, which is what a manager is, didn’t give him enough warning to go pinch-run?
Upton’s attitude is a problem. He leads the National League with 146 strikeouts, but yet Upton probably believes he’s only struck out a handful of times. He’s complained probably at least half the times he’s been called out on strikes.
What’s amazing is Upton’s actions Sunday come on the heels of the news reported first by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal that the Braves actually discussed a trade to get B.J. Upton off the roster. Rosenthal said the Braves would have had to include a starting pitcher (he speculated either Ervin Santana or Mike Minor) to make the deal to an unknown team. The Braves supposedly backed out when they were not happy with their potential return.
Then Monday, two days later, David O’Brien of the AJC reported the same news and that the Braves would have received an underperforming player with a large contract – much like Upton. So it basically would have been a swap of bad contracts, but if the Braves were throwing in a starting pitcher, they probably would have gotten somewhat of a break – in other words they probably would have been on the hook for a shorter amount of time than the three-plus years Upton is on the payroll.
But the Braves said no. What? Man, we need the details of this trade discussion. How could the Braves turn down any chance to rid themselves of B.J. Upton? He’s been a monumental disaster. I can’t imagine there was a player that would have been a problem to replace Upton. Were they afraid B.J.’s brother Justin would have been upset if he had been traded? This is not about protecting feelings. It’s a business.
B.J. and Justin Upton almost represent what is wrong with this team. They do not play the game the Braves way (according to the manager). Justin downplayed any issue about his lack of hustle. Then B.J. dog-cussed his manager only days after Gonzalez publicly took up for him.
What happened to “The Braves Way?”
We’ve had other issues during the season. Chris Johnson threw a tantrum in the dugout and was publicly reprimanded by Gonzalez. But when Justin Upton had a similar situation, nothing was said. How about the Dan Uggla situation? He showed up late for a game in Chicago. Okay, so he was let go about a week later. But the Uggla dilemma lingered for too long and caused issues in the clubhouse.
Unfortunately, Uggla is still causing issues in the clubhouse since some of the Atlanta players are reportedly upset that he was released because he was their pal. Really? Where is a leader on this team to keep that stuff from happening? Every member of the Braves roster should have been glad he was gone, but there are some evidently upset about Uggla's release, which is borderline insanity.
Then there was David Hale brushing off Gonzalez and trainer Jeff Porter when he got hit by a ground ball in San Diego a few weeks ago. Hale showed disrespect and later apologized, but it did show something, didn’t it? Hale is a very nice young man, but sometimes the truth comes out.
There are too many incidents happening on this team. What about when shortstop Andrelton Simmons bunted in a game right before he got hurt when he shouldn’t have? Gonzalez actually told reporters to blame him for that miscue, but the next day Simmons was on the bench and it was obviously not a scheduled day off.
But Gonzalez didn’t even bench Justin Upton when he called him out for not hustling?
Simmons even got mad at B.J. Upton when Upton slowly went after a ball in the gap a few weeks ago. After the play, Simmons stared down Upton. It was obvious Simmons did not like Upton's lack of hustle.
These are huge problems. There are no leaders. None. It is an issue. The players don’t seem to like each other much. The oldest player in the starting lineup is B.J. Upton, but who is going to respect him with his crappy batting average? No one.
This roster has been poorly constructed, and general manager Frank Wren deserves blame. He allowed leaders to leave the team in the last year-and-a-half – guys like Martin Prado, Brian McCann and Tim Hudson.
Sure, Wren has done some good things. The Ervin Santana signing was essential to give this team a shot. He’s gotten plenty of players off the waiver wire (Eric O’Flaherty, Anthony Varvaro, David Carpenter) who have turned into serviceable players. He’s made some good trades (Uggla – yes it was a good trade, Justin Upton and Jordan Walden to name a few), but his free agent contracts (Uggla, B.J. Upton, Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami) have been atrocious.
While Evan Gattis is a power hitter and has a good story, he's proving on a nightly basis he should not be behind the plate. He leads the NL in meetings on the mound, and Gattis showed again Monday night why his defense remains a huge question mark.
The Braves should bring Christian Bethancourt back from Gwinnett and make him the starting catcher. Then Gattis should go to left field, with Justin Upton moving to right field and Jason Heyward going to center. That would give them an excuse to get B.J. Upton out of the lineup. They've brushed this off when it's been brought up over the last two months, but they better do something like this before this season is over. Atlanta is 6-14 since they sent Bethancourt back down to Triple-A.
The farm system is in a mess. It is nowhere near it usually is compared to years past when it comes to overall talent. There are some talented players in the Atlanta system, but it’s nothing like it has been in the past as far as quantity and quality.
And then there’s Gonzalez, who makes odd statements to the media. He doesn’t seem to have the respect of his players. His managerial decisions (use of pitchers, lineup construction, etc.) are regularly questioned.
The bottom line on all of this? The Braves Way, created by Bobby Cox and Stan Kasten and further developed by John Schuerholz, is dying a slow death. This is not a good team. It’s not fun to watch. The attendance is getting bad – in a pennant race, no less. And people are becoming more uninterested by the day, which is a problem with college football right around the corner.
Maybe they’ll surprise us. Maybe things will change. Maybe the Braves will get hot and shut up any critics – and there are many, too many. But right now, this is not a good situation at all. This may be the worst shape this organization has been in since the late-1980s.
No, I am serious. Dead serious.
And it’s a shame. Fans can sense this. That’s why they are not going to the games. The TV ratings are reportedly down. Should this thing crash and burn so they can start over? Are they on the road to that anyway?
It’s a strange time in Braves Country. Maybe it’ll get better. But someone might have to let us know. It doesn’t seem many people even care right now at how this once proud franchise is changing – and not for the good.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fredi Gonzalez talks about Atlanta's loss to Los Angeles…