Losing one of the winningest managers in baseball history would devastate most organizations. And losing one of the greatest closers of all time would be a major setback as well.
The Braves lost both at the end of last season as Bobby Cox, owner of 2,504 victories, and Billy Wagner, possessor of 422 saves, retired following Atlanta's loss to the Giants in the National League Division Series last October. Yet three days before the Braves open their season against the Nationals in Washington, Atlanta general manager Frank Wren couldn't be more upbeat.
"We've had a great spring training and we're ready to go," said Wren, whose team breaks camp in Orlando this afternoon after playing the Nationals in a Grapefruit League game. "We feel we're ready to have a very good season."
Wren interviewed only one candidate to replace Cox, hiring former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez within hours of the last out of the NLDS. Gonzalez served as the Braves' Triple-A manager in 2002, then third base coach from 2003 to 2006 before moving on to the Marlins. Wren, as evidenced by his short interview process, is sure Gonzalez is the right man to replace a legend, especially since Cox will continue to have a presence with the Braves as a special assistant for baseball operations.
The Braves stress continuity, which is one reason why Cox managed them for 25 years. It is also why Wren turned down opportunities to become a GM with other teams, choosing to remain as the Braves' assistant GM for seven years before being promoted in 2007 when John Schuerholz stepped up to the club presidency.
"I think it was clear to all of us from the beginning that Fredi was the right guy and there was really no reason to look at anyone else," Wren said. "We're certainly very pleased with the way the transition has gone. He's created a great environment around our club, and he certainly has great respect for Bobby Cox. Fredi certainly doesn't feel uncomfortable following Bobby. They had a great working relationship and friendship when Fredi was on our staff, and Fredi knows he has Bobby's full support."
Spring training has held few differences for the Braves. Gonzalez estimates he has incorporated about 90 percent of the drills the Braves used under Cox. Furthermore, Gonzalez has a personality very similar to Cox's, as he is friendly and extremely approachable.
"I learned a lot from Bobby in the four years I was on his staff," Gonzalez said. "It was like a painter working under Picasso. You're going to take a lot of what you learned from him and incorporate it into your own work. This team went to the playoffs last season. There is certainly no reason to come in and change everything."
Another aspect in which Gonzalez will mimic Cox is in handling leads in the ninth inning. Cox wasn't always wed to the one-closer school of thought, though those duties were strictly Wagner's last season. Now that Wagner is gone, the Braves will go with left-hander Jonny Venters and right-hander Craig Kimbrel as co-closers, even though both just made their major-league debuts last season. Wren and the Braves feel both are ready after a year in the bullpen with Wagner.
"Billy really took it upon himself to take both of them under his wing last season and groomed them to be closers," Wren said. "We're very appreciative of what Billy did, and we feel they are both ready to close out games, both from a physical and mental standpoint. We feel very fortunate to have two pitchers of that caliber and fortunate that we had someone like Billy to teach them."
The good feeling also carries over to the Braves lineup, as two of the team's biggest question marks have had big springs. Third baseman Chipper Jones is hitting .407/.453/.746, and center fielder Nate McLouth has a .310/.414/.448 line.
Jones, who turns 39 on April 24, is coming off two sub-par seasons, as he was worth 2.5 WARP in 2009 and 2.7 last year. He also missed the final six weeks of last season after injuring a knee and needing reconstructive surgery. Though Jones' best days are behind him, he has shown enough this spring to make the Braves feel he can still be a key component of their offense.
"We found out how important he is to our lineup once we didn't have him last year and struggled to score runs down the stretch," Wren said. "He's looked great this spring. I really think he's ready to have a bounce-back season for us."
McLouth struggled so badly last season that he wound up spending a month at Triple-A Gwinnett just two seasons after playing in the All-Star Game and winning a Gold Glove for the Pirates. McLouth has been worth just 1.5 WARP in 169 games since the Braves acquired him in June 2009. However, as with Jones, Wren believes McLouth can be a difference maker this season.
"He's looked great from the day he got to spring training and has played well all spring," Wren said. "He looks like the player he was in Pittsburgh, the player we felt we were getting in the trade. He can really help make our offense go at the top of the lineup. His play has certainly been a pleasant development this spring."
It's been a pleasant spring overall for the Braves, who look to end the Phillies' run of four straight NL East titles after themselves ending a four-year postseason drought by winning the wild card last season.
"We've had a good camp and we're ready to get started," Wren said. "We're very excited about the possibilities this season."
Rumors and Rumblings: Somewhat surprisingly, the Brewers plan to use Carlos Gomez as their primary center fielder despite acquiring Nyjer Morgan from the Nationals in a trade on Sunday. PECOTA projects Gomez for a .223 True Average this season. … One major-league executive had this to say about Carlos Silva after the right-hander basically torched everyone in the entire organization following his release by the Cubs over the weekend: "I wouldn't touch him. He's a bad pitcher and a bad guy, and that's a bad combination." … Joe Nathan will be the Twins' primary closer to begin the season, but manager Ron Gardenhire also plans to use Matt Capps in some save situations. … Ryan Madson will be the Phillies' fill-in—Phil-in?—closer while Brad Lidge (elbow) is on the disabled list. … Rangers right-hander Alexi Ogando, who is being stretched out as a starter this spring, is likely to take the place of Tommy Hunter (groin) in the Rangers' starting rotation. … The Pirates are expected to have Ryan Doumit and Jason Jaramillo split time behind the plate if catcher Chris Snyder (back) begins the season on the DL. … The Rockies have still yet to decide between Jose Lopez and Jonathan Herrara for the starting second baseman's job. … Following prospect Matt Dominguez's spring training flop, the Marlins plan to fill their third base hole internally by giving the job to either Emilio Bonifacio or Donnie Murphy. … Tommy Manzella will be the Astros' regular shortstop while Clint Barmes (broken hand) is out. … Right-handers Mike Leake and Sam LeCure will both begin the season in the Reds' rotation rather than at Triple-A Louisville, as Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey are starting the season on the DL. … Russell Branyan and Juan Miranda will split time at first base for the Diamondbacks.
Scouts' views on various major-league players:
Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez: "You can see him getting more comfortable every day with his swing [after off-season shoulder surgery]. Boston is going to love him. His swing is perfect for Fenway Park. He's going to put up monster numbers this season."
Yankees right-hander Kevin Millwood: "He's obviously better than his record [4-16] was last year in Baltimore, and he can still eat innings. However, his fastball has lost some of its zip, and his slider doesn't have its old bite. Unlike some other older pitchers, he hasn't learned how to pitch without good stuff."
Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth: "I think it's a really good move by [manager] Jim Riggleman to bat him second. Werth is more than just a power guy. He's a good all-around hitter. He'll work the count, get on base. I think he'll do really well at No. 2."