As the losses piled up one after another, the burden of unmet expectations – no matter how modest – weighed on Fredi Gonzalez.
Saddled with the worst record in the majors and a rebuilding project whose timetable will be measured in years, the Atlanta Braves finally relieved the pressure on their embattled manager Tuesday, firing Gonzalez and replacing him with former Myrtle Beach Pelicans manager Brian Snitker in hopes of trying to salvage something out of an already forgettable 2016.
“It was wearing on him, how we were playing and what was going on,” director of baseball operations John Hart said. “We just thought this was the right thing to do.”
The Braves entered Tuesday just 9-28 and on pace for the franchise’s worst season in nearly 30 years, done in by injuries, roster moves that haven’t worked out, a shaky bullpen and a struggling offense.
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While Hart and general manager John Coppolella expected growing pains as the Braves tried to generate momentum heading into a new suburban ballpark next spring, they didn’t expect Atlanta to bottom out so quickly and so completely.
Yet when Gonzalez tried to make the right moves in search of something – anything really – nothing happened. Atlanta opened the season with a nine-game losing streak. Heading into Tuesday night’s game in Pittsburgh the Braves ranked either last or next-to-last in the majors in runs, home runs, batting average and slugging percentage.
Though both Hart and Coppolella stressed the team’s problems were not Gonzalez’s fault, when they decided in recent days the 52-year-old would not be back in 2017 no matter what, they opted to make a change.
“Our bad start is not just laid at the foot of Fredi Gonzalez,” Hart said. “We all assume a lot of responsibility. That being said, we do think we’re better than what we’ve played.”
Enter Snitker, who has spent the last four decades as a player, coach or manager in the organization, most recently with Triple-A Gwinnett. Coppolella pointed to Snitker’s familiarity with the team’s high-end prospects as a significant factor in the promotion, one Snitker considers bittersweet.
“When things go like they have been, somebody’s got to go,” Snitker, who led the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to Carolina League championships in their inaugural year of 1999 and again in 2000.
Gonzalez went 434-413 in five-plus seasons in Atlanta, including leading the Braves to the NL East title in 2013, their 17th postseason appearance in 22 years. Yet what began as a slow slide in 2014 accelerated quickly over the last 10 months. Atlanta went 34-81 in Gonzalez’s last 115 games, a freefall abetted by a front office decision to dump experienced (and in some cases expensive) players like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons in exchange for young pitchers.
Though Coppolella and Hart remain committed to the team’s long-term vision, they grew increasingly impatient with the missteps in the present.
“At the end of it, at some point you’ve got to put a product out there that’s going to respectable and we just think there’s more in it,” Hart said. “We’ve got a lot of season left.”
Even if there’s almost no chance of contending in the NL East this summer. The Braves are the only team in the division with a losing record and already are more than a dozen games back of first-place Washington less than a quarter of the way through.
It’s not the bridge year they had in mind while trying to nurture a pitching staff it considers the bedrock of the future. Early season injuries to outfielder Ender Inciarte and third baseman Gordon Beckham haven’t helped, neither has a 2-17 mark at Turner Field.
The Braves are asking the 60-year-old Snitker to give the clubhouse a chance to exhale. He met with the players early Tuesday afternoon, saying he’d need time to get a feel for the job but promising to stay upbeat.
“I told them they’re good players,” Snitker said. “The record isn’t where they want it but that’s not the kind of team this is. They’re in game, they get after it, it just hasn’t went their way.”
Atlanta also fired bench coach Carlos Tosca. Gwinnett pitching coach Marty Reed has joined the club as bullpen coach. Terry Pendleton will move from first base coach to bench coach and Eddie Perez will move from bullpen coach to first base coach.
The Braves went with Snitker over other internal candidates, including Pendleton, and plan to revisit the managing situation in the fall. For now, however, there is the task of trying to find a way out of a funk that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
“I think when you look at our club offensively, we don’t have a lot of power,” Hart said. “We know what we have. At the same point, this is a club that has some talent, has some ability … we want to see that when we have a chance to get more wins, we finish it off.”