You might not like the way Fredi Gonzalez constructs his batting order. You might cringe when he summons Scott Proctor. But you have to say this for the manager: He’s not afraid.
He wasn’t afraid to brace Hanley Ramirez, the gifted Marlins shortstop who didn’t appear to be applying those gifts, and in the end that confrontation surely was part of the reason Gonzalez was rendered an ex-manager. He has a new gig now, and again he’s proving that talent is no ticket to lineup tenure.
Gonzalez sat Ramirez for not hustling. Now he’s sitting Jason Heyward for not producing. The parallels aren’t exact — nobody has suggested that Heyward isn’t trying his hardest — but they’re close. Even if you’re as established as Tony La Russa, it takes some guts not to write a high-profile name on the lineup card.
Monday’s game marked the fourth of the past seven in which Heyward didn’t start, and he’s not listed in tonight’s lineup, either. And the Braves aren’t facing a lefthander tonight, which tells us that Fredi G. simply believes his team is better off with the up-from-nowhere Jose Constanza in right field than with the 21-year-old who has been hailed as the greatest prospect of his generation.
It isn’t just that Heyward is hitting .222. (As Braves fans can attest, even good hitters can go bad — and then, for no apparent reason, get hotter than Georgia asphalt.) It’s that much of what made him the greatest prospect of his generation hasn’t lately been on display. He’s seeing fewer pitches per at-bat. He’s not walking at the same rate. His on-base percentage has dropped from .393 to .317. Last year we marveled at Heyward’s measured approach and the wise-beyond-his-years way he made adjustments. But it has been, sorry to say, a while since he appeared so marvelous.
Yes, Heyward has been hurt, but he’s presumed healthy now. He’s just not hitting as well as Constanza, who was signed as a minor-league free agent and who went to Braves camp as a non-roster invitee. Two springs ago Heyward was all the rage — he was featured not just in Sports Illustrated but also The New Yorker — and now he’s playing behind a 27-year-old rookie.
This is surely a temporary thing: You don’t go from being the greatest prospect of a generation to being untalented. But it’s instructive that the rookie Braves’ manager is willing to bench the player who has been ticketed as the next face of the franchise. It tells us that, no matter who you are, your starting job isn’t guaranteed. It tells us that Fredi G. is swayed less by reputation than performance.
By Mark Bradley