DALLAS — After their near-historic September collapse kept the Braves from the postseason, manager Fredi Gonzalez said he rarely left his suburban Atlanta home for a month because he felt as if he’d let everyone down.
Two months after the slide, which included 20 losses in 30 games, Gonzalez was back in his characteristically upbeat demeanor Wednesday during an interview at baseball’s Winter Meetings at the Hilton Anatole.
Gonzalez addressed a variety of topics ranging from trade rumors, the health of the starting rotation, and Jason Heyward’s upcoming winter workout schedule with the team’s new hitting coach.
Here were highlights of the interview, the full text of which can be found on the Braves page at ajc.com.
Q. When you look at the way your roster shapes up, what would you like to see happen before the start of Spring Training?
A.“I think if the season starts right now, you feel pretty good about your roster. You really do. I’m sure in a perfect world, in a fantasy world, you’d like another right‑handed bat someplace. But right now you feel pretty good. You feel like the strength of your team is your pitching staff, that goes a long way. [He smiles.]But with Christmas coming around the corner and you want to add another piece, it will be a big bat.”
Q. It’s a tough way to end the season. Is there anything you look back on and say, this is what went wrong for us? Or is it just a bunch of things?
A. “You look back and kind of reflect for about a month and there’s a lot of that stuff — could’ve, should’ve done this differently and all that kind of stuff. The great thing is that spring training starts again in a couple of months. Going through that month of September, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody in any sport, but it’s going to help us going forward.”
Q. Can you get that big bat you want without trading Jurrjens and/or Prado?
A. “I’m not looking to trade any of them. I’m just saying another bat would be nice. Somehow.”
Q. What about Jurrjens and Prado and all the trade rumors. Where do you stand with them?
A. “I think they’re good players, and they’re Atlanta Braves. I know there’s been a lot of rumors out there about these two. J.J. was an All-Star last year and Prado was the year before; they’re good baseball players. If the season starts tomorrow, you feel good about your club.”
Q. What about the health of the three guys at the top of the starting rotation? Tim Hudson just had back surgery and Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder) both missed most of the second half.
A. “I think coming out of spring training we’re going to be fine. Jurrjens, if we had gone forward into the playoffs, he was on schedule to start one of those games. The day after the season ended he threw five or six innings [in Gulf Coast League], so he’s fine. Hanson went down to Instructional League and started doing some strengthening exercises on his shoulder and scapula, so I think he’s going to be fine. Huddy had surgery a week ago, and talking to him he said he feels like he’s three weeks ahead of last year to start his throwing program. So those are all good things.”
Q. Do you guys think Kris Medlen is a better fit for long relief out of the bullpen than starting right now?
A. “He’s a wild card. He can do both and do both extremely well. We haven’t made a decision on whether he’s going to be a starter or in the bullpen. I think we’ll work him as a starter, kind of keep stretching him out, because you could always back him off to go to the bullpen. He’s a wild card for us, he really is. He can do a lot of roles for us. And he’s healthy. He showed us at the end of last year that he’s recovered from the Tommy John [surgery].”
Q. With the way the season ended, the fans get anxious if you’re not making moves, but theoretically, would you be comfortable if you brought back the same team that you had?
A. “Nobody liked the way the season ended, and I think you make moves if our team was old. But for the most part, our nucleus of players is pretty young and talented, so you hope that they learned from that month of September, having experienced it, and are better off for it. You look at any major league team, even the guys who won the World Series, and they had a bad month. We just chose our month to be the last month of the season, which makes it hurt more. I think at the beginning of the year, the Cardinals couldn’t win a game. We were the other way around. We got cold in September. That happens in sports, and I think in baseball even more.”
Q. Chipper [Jones] is the only old guy in the lineup. Does his situation add to the importance of Prado, given his role as Chipper’s backup at third base, in addition to playing left field?
A. “Yeah, Chipper’s going to play at what, 40 years old? And last year he played 125, 130 games. We’ll probably cut back on him a little more, having Prado you have that luxury you can move him to third. If we need to give a rest to Chipper, it’s a big plus for us.
“Prado is a big piece for us. And Jurrjens in the rotation. I think sitting here, you hate to say you won’t trade anybody. We’re in position where we would trade somebody if it makes our team better. If we go, this will make us better. But other than that, I think we’re OK.”
Q. You said you wanted the guys to have some time to decompress after the season ended before you talked to them. Is there anybody you’ve reached out to recently?
A. “I’ve talked to a few guys. I’ve seen a couple of guys in person. I saw Heyward. I saw him a couple of weeks ago. He looks great. He looks like he’s been working out, like he’s slimmed down a little bit. I think that’s what he wanted to do, for whatever reason. I think he felt better when he did that. He’s going to start working out with Greg [Walker, hitting coach] on Monday, a couple of times a week, start hitting in the cages. So I’m looking forward to seeing him. I’ve seen McCann a few times, seen Chipper, talked to Huddy, talked to Venters, spoken to a bunch of the other guys. Freeman, Uggla all the time. You like to keep in touch. Coming here in the next few weeks, this is when you start to reach out and talk to more and more guys.”
Q. How confident are you that Heyward will bounce back from last year and be more like the player he was as a rookie, and be the every-day guy in right field from Day 1?
“Well, we’re hoping that happens. We really do. We saw a stretch in September, we saw games of him being really good. I think it’s just a matter of him getting some confidence and working with Greg, being the same guy [he was]. I think maybe some of those nagging injuries played a factor in the lack of production offensively, and maybe a little sophomore slump, all of the above. But he’s a big piece for us. I mean, that’s a big bat in the lineup. And get him going, get him straight, it’ll help us tremendously.”
Q. You plan to go into the season with him as your right fielder, playing him every day?
A. “Yeah, I think so. Obviously we’ll see how spring training works out and all that kind of stuff, but I’m always the guy [who says] you’ve got to give people an opportunity. As long as he works and he shows improvement and we see consistency, sure.”
Q. You mentioned Heyward being slimmer…
A. “He looks good, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him start working with Greg and Scott [Fletcher, assistant hitting coach], start to to get some swings and see how that goes.”
Q. Is there any specific aspect of his swing or approach you want to zero in on?
A. “I don’t want to speak for Greg, but I think he’s just got to watch him and then make changes or suggestions accordingly. I don’t think it’s a full revamp of a swing or a setup. I think he’s just going to watch and see where it goes from that.”
Q. What do you think of having a new position on the staff, assistant hitting coach, who’ll also serve as an on-site advance scout?
A. “I think it’s going to be interesting, something that’s maybe a little cutting-edge, outside the box. Not that we’re the first team to do it. I think the Cardinals did it [and the Chicago Cubs]. Our theory is, usually your pitching coach and bench coach are pitching guys, so you kind of divide those responsibilities with two guys for 12 or 13 pitchers. And why not do the same thing for hitting coach, as long as there are no egos and it’s for the betterment of the team. And there is some history there between Greg and Scott, and Scott having the video background, I think it’s going to help us.
“I call [Fletcher] the vampire coach, because he’s going to see daylight for about 20 minutes every day. He’s going to throw BP and then get back into the batting cages helping Greg or back into the video room.
“I think it’s going to help us, because usually your advance scout watches three games [in person, on the road]. Well, with the video stuff you can watch three games a day. You can go back and watch the Philadelphia Phillies play the last 12 games and break it down, come up with a game plan, and watch to see where we’re executing that game plan, and make adjustments accordingly.So we’ll see if it works. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never done it that way, but I think it’s a good way to do it.”
Q. How much did you learn in the second half from the way you used your relievers? Because you made an adjustment at the All‑Star break. Are you going into this season, with the benefit of knowing what they can and can’t do, and using them accordingly?
A. “Yeah, I think going into the season we’ll probably end up using them the way we did the second half. [Craig] Kimbrel and [Jonny] Venters and [Eric] O’Flaherty, use them only when we were ahead or tied – which we were a lot; a lot of ties. I think we had 26 extra-inning games, so there’s a bulk of games that they pitched in for that reason. So, yeah, and if Medlen is in the bullpen you can use him a little bit more in those situations.
“You know what? The games in April and May count as much as the games in September, if not more. Games in the major leagues are hard to win, and when you get an opportunity you’ve got to try and go for it.”
Q. How close is [rookie pitcher] Julio Teheran to being somebody you can count on every fifth day at the big-league level?
A. “Very close. He showed us some good stuff last year. All those [pitching prospects] did. When Tommy Hanson went down and Jurrjens went down, we asked [Randall] Delgado, Teheran and [Mike] Minor to pick up the load in September. And they did a terrific job, they really did. They pitched some great ballgames coming down the stretch and they held their own. And I think those games that they pitched, it has to help them. They’re facing the Philadelphia Phillies. And they’re one game left, playoff-type atmosphere almost the whole month of September. It’s going to be good for them.”
Q. The moves that the Marlins have made, how do you feel about that and looking at the division — it looks like it’s obviously getting tougher, and it was already a tough division.
A. “Tough division, and they [Marlins] are making some good moves, making that team even better with [Jose] Reyes and Heath Bell, along with Hanley Ramirez and [Emilio] Bonifacio and [Mike] Stanton and you name it, all those guys. I’m a big fan of St. Louis Cardinals right now [laughs], to keep the other animal over there in St. Louis and don’t bring him to Florida. [Gonzalez referred to slugger Albert Pujols, who had not decided between offers from the Cardinals and Marlins at the time of this interview Wednesday.]
“But everybody is getting better in the division. The Phillies are the Phillies. The Marlins are getting better. Washington is getting dangerous; they’re getting close. They’ve got some good players. Our expectations are, we should be in the playoffs. But it’s not easy. It’s going to come down to health, who stays healthy.”
Q. Are you still confident in your own team?
A. “I like our team because I like the pitching, and I think that guys are going to have better offensive years this year and that it’s going to take some of the pressure off that pitching. I think our lack of offense last year kind of killed our pitching by playing a lot of extra-inning games, one-run games – we led the world in one-run games, and that’s where the Venters and Kimbrels and O’Flahertys are pitching almost every night.”
Q. Did Hudson’s back surgery, in your mind, kind of bring up a red flag that maybe we need to keep Jurrjens, because [Hudson] is your most experienced returning starter now with Lowe gone?
A. “I think Huddy’s surgery … I think he’s going to be fine. I really do think he’s going to be fine. Right now as we speak, if the season starts tomorrow, in no particular order you feel like you’ve got Hudson, Jurrjens, [Brandon] Beachy, Hanson, and then one of Minor, Delgado or Teheran. So, you feel good. You feel like, even if we have to improve the club by losing Jurrjens – or losing any of the other ones — you still feel pretty good, like you’ve got a good core of starting pitching.
“Again, all those [trade] rumors are out there. But you feel like only if somebody really knocks your socks off and you feel like, OK, this makes us better.”
Q. Any chance that Andruw Jones or Rafael Furcal, couple of ex-Braves, could be back?
A. “We haven’t spoken about those guys. Those are two ex-Braves and two good players, but we haven’t gotten to that point of speaking to those guys yet.”
Q. How long did it take you to get over September?
A. “About a month. I think the first baseball game I saw was Game 6 of the World Series, and I turned it off after the first five innings because it was a boring game the first five innings. I Tivo’d it to see if something happens, and it sure did, the last four innings was some of the best baseball you’ll see. I watched it the next morning, after I missed it. But the first, five or six, innings was not a very good baseball game.
“You want to let it go, what happened [in September]. You kind of live through it, you learn from it, you experience it. Let it go and start spring, start fresh. And hopefully we’re better for it.”
Q. Are you comfortable with [rookie shortstop Tyler] Pastornicky, going with an inexperienced guy, you trust the player development staff and [general manager] Frank [Wren] that he’s ready?
A. “Yeah, and I saw him a little bit, we got an opportunity to spend a little time with him in spring training last year, and you like the kid’s makeup. I think the big key is maybe getting a veteran guy that can spell him every once in a while, not just throw [Pastornicky] completely into the fire. Get a veteran utility guy that every once in a while they’re facing some tough pitching and you say, you’ve got it today. Little by little let’s get him in there as an every-day shortstop. But our reports say he’s pretty good. And I really like the kid’s makeup. He’s a baseball player and grew up around baseball. He’s got athletic ability and can steal you some bases. Let’s give him an opportunity.”
Q. Does having a guy like Freddie Freeman at first base make it a little easier to have a young shortstop, knowing that Freeman can help him out by scooping and catching a lot of throws that might otherwise get past?
A. “Yeah, he makes a difference. There’s no doubt that Freddie Freeman makes everybody else in that infield a lot better. I would like to really see who’s better than him picking balls in the dirt. If there is someone, there’s maybe only one other guy. But there were some balls that he dug out that really saved us.”
Q. Does it make it easier to fill the lineup because you have that legit leadoff guy, do all the other pieces fit a little easier
A. “Because [leadoff man Michael] Bourn is there and you’ve lived with him for three months and you know what he can do? Absolutely.
Q. A year ago you mentioned people recognizing you when you walked around Atlanta, as manager of the Braves, and how you could tell the team meant a lot to them. Have they recognized you this winter, and if so did you wish they hadn’t?
A. “You know there was a month I stayed in the house. This is the way I feel — maybe I was wrong; I don’t think I was wrong – but I stayed home the first month. Because when stuff like that happens … Your goal is always to make the playoffs, not only for the organization, but for your fan base, for the city. And you feel like you let all those people down when you don’t make the playoffs.
“So the first month after that, I stayed home. I didn’t go out very much. When you go to the stadium those first couple of weeks after the season ends and you see those people working or cleaning the stadium and you think, they could have two more weeks of games or another week of games.
“I read the story in St. Louis, where the World Series kind of saved ‑‑ I may be wrong — but two or three hundred jobs in St. Louis, something like that, because they had the extra four games in St. Louis, because the World Series got to St. Louis and they didn’t have to shut something down. And you know what? I wish we could have had that for Atlanta. So the first month I kind of hid. And now I think people are ready for baseball to get going again. I think this time of year they get the juices going, and it’s time to get back on the field and try to put one of those pennants back up there.”