Braves' Gonzalez off to good start, but will he be able to finish?

July 21, 2011 

Fredi Gonzalez has managed the Atlanta Braves for 98 games. That's miniscule compared to Bobby Cox's 3,000-plus games as skipper of the Braves. So it is way too early to draw any long-range comparisons. But it is fair to say that the Braves, under Gonzalez, are just as good, if not better, than Cox's 2010 team.

They are giving Philadelphia, everyone's choice to win the National League East, a run for their money. Matter of fact, only the Phillies, and the American League's Boston and New York, have slightly better records than Atlanta.

Of course, the real test will come in October when the playoffs begin. The Braves will be there, as they were last year when they were eliminated in the first round by San Francisco, which went on to win the World Series.

You don't need me to tell you that the postseason was Cox's Achilles' heel -- one world championship in 15 tries.

Who knows how Gonzalez will do?

When Fredi was chosen to replace Cox there was a feeling that he was the perfect choice for a smooth transition, since Gonzalez had worked as a coach for Bobby and would follow his philosophies.

That has been true for the most part, with a couple of major differences. Right away, Gonzalez showed he was his own man in the way he started his spring training camp.

Bobby was known for conducting one of the more laid-back camps in baseball. Players were expected to get their work in, but free to go shortly thereafter to meet their noon tee times.

This spring, Gonzalez worked his team longer and harder. There was more work on fundamentals with greater attention to detail. The Braves did more bunt plays, more defensive drills, more pitchers' hitting.

Interestingly, Chipper Jones -- who played under Cox for 17 years -- was quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution commending Gonzalez's change in philosophy:

"I think it's been excellent. There's less down time," Jones said in March. "It's stuff that you just don't practice. That's what has been so impressive. We're thinking about things that are going to happen during the season down here, and working on them."

Gonzalez has extended his defensive practices into the regular season, holding 15-minute drills before batting practice most days.

"I can count on one hand the amount of time (before this season) I've taken infield at the major league level," Jones said.

Has it paid off?

Right now the Braves rank fifth in defensive percentage among the 16 NL teams. Last year they finished 12th. They have been charged with 57 errors in 97 games. Last season, they made 126 in 162 games.

In addition, Gonzalez has been much quicker in benching players who are not performing up to expectations. Cox had a reputation of sticking too long with his veteran favorites.

Gonzalez has followed one of Cox's strategical moves that is questionable. When they find reliable relief pitchers, both managers work them to death.

In Bobby's case, he often had a tired bullpen when he got to the playoffs.

Gonzalez seems to be heading in the same direction with Jonny Venters (53 games), Craig Kimbrel (49) and Eric O'Flaherty (48). As of Wednesday, no Phillies pitcher had appeared in more than 40 games.

Something to keep in mind come October.

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