Fredi Gonzalez's first task as Atlanta Braves' manager was daunting enough -- replacing a certain Hall of Famer. For nearly 20 years, the Atlanta Braves had been Bobby Cox's team, the first five as the general manager, the rest as field boss. Gonzalez handled following a legend as well as could be expected.
Gonzalez's next challenge wasn't simple either -- dealing with the farewell tour of a Hall of Fame player. It took some diplomacy skills to allow Chipper Jones an appropriate send-off into retirement without allowing that to overshadow the real business at hand, pursuing a pennant. Again, Gonzalez handled it well and found the proper balance, turning a potential distraction into a rallying point.
But Gonzalez may be facing his greatest challenge yet.
Jason Heyward is due to come off the disabled list after having an emergency appendectomy. How Gonzalez handles this dilemma could determine the direction of the team for the rest of the season.
The simple facts are this:
Rookie Evan Gattis is one of the best pure hitters on the team and needs to play. Despite his size and limited experience, he's at least a capable left fielder. Gattis needs to play.
Jordan Schafer is the team's only effective leadoff hitter, is their best defensive outfielder, and right now is their best offensive outfielder. Schafer MUST play.
The inconvenient facts are this:
B.J. Upton is hitting .153 and has an on-base percentage of .241. His strikeouts (44) are more than double his base hits (18). And he's making $13 million this year, the first of a five-year deal. Oh, and his brother is starting and producing in the same outfield.
Heyward is hitting even less -- an astounding .121. He has just seven hits, one more than pitcher Tim Hudson. Heyward's salary, $3.65 million, isn't so much of an issue as the fact that he's one of the core young players.
We broached this issue a few weeks ago when Brian McCann was scheduled to come off the disabled list. But this dilemma has taken on a different dimension than simply finding a way to keep Gattis in the lineup. Heyward's surgery gave Schafer an unexpected opportunity, and he has flourished. Now it's about not letting a sticky situation become a complete distraction.
Sitting Schafer and Gattis down to let Upton and Heyward slog their way out of their slumps could cost the Braves games. It would also send the message to the clubhouse that seniority trumps production.
Sitting Upton and Heyward could cause clubhouse turmoil. The threat of that is compounded by having Justin Upton one locker next door. When players are benched, they often try to find a sympathetic ear within the clubhouse. It would be only natural for B.J. to vent to his brother, and for his brother to support him.
The Braves are in a tough spot. They have no choice but to do everything they can to get B.J. Upton going. He's just six weeks into a $75 million contract over the next five years. They can't trade him because no one would take on that contract with that lack of production. They can't release him. That's just not going to happen.
But they can't afford to play Upton and Heyward at the same time if both players are virtually automatic outs.
There are no simple solutions.