ORLANDO – It had been more than two decades since anyone except Bobby Cox addressed the media as Braves manager during baseball’s winter meetings. Fredi Gonzalez seemed entirely comfortable in the role Wednesday.
The first-year Braves manager wore a sharp gray business suit and mixed in a few one-liners and anecdotes with during a 25-minute interview with reporters. All 30 major league managers did the drill over the past three days.
If replacing the iconic Cox carries a lot of pressure, Gonzalez isn’t showing it.
“The ultimate pressure is winning games,” said Gonzalez, a Braves third-base coach under Cox before serving 3-1/2 seasons as manager of the Florida Marlins. “You want to win games. But as far as pressure of replacing him, I’ve never felt that.
“I think that it’s almost like a family member, your dad or uncle, saying, ‘We’ve had this car in the garage in our family for 30 years, here’s the keys. It’s in great shape, just drive it, keep it running.’
“That’s how I felt, the way I’m feeling with that transition. Not that I’m replacing Bobby, replacing a Hall of Famer. It’s just, ‘Here’s the keys. Keep going.’”
Gonzalez’s family continued living in Marietta during his stint as Marlins manager. He said it’s different being in Atlanta since being hired to replace Cox.
“I’ve already been recognized more as the Braves manager in Atlanta than when I was the Marlins manager in Miami,” he said. “And I think it’s because of the history…. There are a lot of people across the South that really love their Braves. Generations upon generations.
“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘Hey, my grandmother loves you guys. She watches every game. She’s 87 years old.’ It’s a good feeling. I’ve been welcomed with open arms.”
He paused, smiled and said, “But we haven’t lost six in a row yet.”
Andruw back with Braves?
The Braves want to add another outfielder with center-field experience, and Gonzalez was asked about the possibility of Andruw Jones returning. The former Atlanta center fielder is a free agent.
“His name has been brought up,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve talked about it.”
They’ve talked about a whole lot of others, too. Jones returning the Braves seems unlikely, based on conversations with others in the organization.
Nate McLouth is penciled in for center field. He’s owed $7.75 million, and the starting job is his to lose.
“We’ve got to give Nate the chance to play every day,” Gonzalez said. “Give him the opportunity, see if we can see what he did with the Pirates two or three years ago. I think it’s there, and we’ll give him the opportunity to do that.”
McLouth hit just .190 with 12 doubles, six homers, a .298 on-base percentage and .620 OPS in 85 games last season, easily his worst statistics he’s produced in each of those categories during five full seasons in the majors. His seven stolen bases also tied his personal low.
McLouth had 20 homers and a .788 OPS in 2009, and in 2008 with Pittsburgh he was an All-Star who hit .276 with a league-leading 46 doubles, 26 homers, 94 RBIs, an .853 OPS and 23 stolen bases.
“There’s spurts where you’ve seen him and gone, wow, this is the guy we saw with the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Gonzalez said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting back to the consistency.”
The Braves have Rookie of the Year runner-up Jason Heyward in right field and Martin Prado in left, though Prado will also work out in the infield so he’s ready to fill in when needed, especially for third baseman Chipper Jones.
They want to add another versatile outfielder in case McLouth struggles again, or Prado has to fill in for Jones long-term. But general manager Frank Wren said the Braves could go with what they have if they don’t find any suitable additions at a reasonable price.
They have left fielder/pinch-hitter Eric Hinske, Jordan Schafer, finally healthy after missing much of two seasons for a wrist fractur; and recent addition Joe Mather, a corner infielder/outfielder claimed off waivers from St. Lous. The Braves think Mather can be the backup first baseman to rookie Freddie Freeman.
“You’ve got an opportunity to go Mather, Schafer, maybe Hinske [as extra outfielders], Gonzalez said. “You can throw Hinske out there in left field. But yeah, it’s open. We’re looking for fourth, fifth outfielders.”
Diaz lands with Pirates
A week after being cut loose by the Braves, outfielder Matt Diaz agreed to a two-year, $4.25 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The multi-year deal was unusual for a non-tendered free agent who’s been a platoon player most of his career. But his strong suits – excels against left-handed pitching and has an outstanding clubhouse reputation – helped attract interest from multiple teams at the winter meetings, including Arizona and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Winter Haven, Fla., resident preferred to play on the East Coast. After his wife, Leslee, gave birth last week to the couple’s third child, staying in Florida for spring training was appealing. The Pirates train in Bradenton, Fla.
Diaz made $2.55 million in 2010 and hit .250 with a career-low .302 on-base percentage and seven homers. He was expendable after the Braves traded for second baseman Dan Uggla and moved Martin Prado to left field.