The Atlanta Braves have been in first place in the National League East for all but one day of the season, and have been in the sole lead since April 7. But if they are going to win their first division title since 2005, they will need to learn from a valuable lesson last year.
Last September, with the Braves trying to chase down the Washington Nationals or secure at least a wildcard spot, Fredi Gonzalez made a bold decision. The manager benched the slumping Dan Uggla. Gonzalez's aim wasn't to send a message to Uggla. Rather, his motive was something much more pure.
He wanted to win.
A case could be made that benching Uggla helped the Braves clinch a playoff spot. They held a 3½-game lead over the Dodgers for the wild-card spot when he was benched. Two weeks later, that lead was eight games.
Said Gonzalez at the time, "Next year is next year. I might not even be around for next year. I don't even look that far ahead."
Managers don't negotiate contracts. Likewise, general managers and team presidents don't fill out lineup cards.
The pennant race is drawing near with the Braves holding a precarious lead over the Nationals and Phillies. Once again, Gonzalez faces an enormous dilemma. Will he stick with B.J. Upton in center field and Uggla at second base, or will he field the lineup that gives the Braves the best chance of winning now?
When you put it like that, it should be a no-brainer. As painful as it may be to have 29 percent of your payroll sitting on the bench, that shouldn't matter. The Braves have a $90 million payroll for
one reason, and one reason alone: to win. They should make no decisions that would undermine that goal.
Upton's strained groin muscle has made the decision for Gonzalez for the short term. He will miss at least another week because he's on the disabled list. Jason Heyward's strained hamstring complicates matters. Ideally, the Braves would have Evan Gattis in left field and move Justin Upton to right. But that would require moving Heyward over to center field, which would be a challenge with his hamstring soreness. Even though Heyward is getting well enough to play, a hamstring likely will not fully heal until the offseason.
But whatever the outfield lineup is -- Heyward in center, or Reed Johnson, or Jose Constanza -- until Jordan Schafer returns, the Braves can no longer afford to keep playing B.J. every day simply because he's in the first year of a $75 million contract.
The same holds true for Uggla. That is, in principle. But Gonzalez's options are more limited at second base. Ramiro Pena was pushing his way into the starting lineup. Now he's out for the season. The only viable alternative is to play Tyler Pastornicky at second base. The kid can hit. But he's still largely unproven on the big league level.
The Braves may be stuck with having to live with Uggla's two strikeouts a game and occasional home run.
If so, that's all the more reason they can no longer be patient with B.J. hitting below .180.
The Braves held a lead of 6½ games over the Phillies and 7 over the Nationals going into Saturday's games.
That's somewhat astonishing considering that they are just 43-40 after their 12-1 start. The next few weeks could reshape the division standings substantially.
The Braves play 12 games against the Phillies and Nationals over a 16-day period in August.
The Phillies and Nationals also play a three-game series during that stretch. There's potential for the Braves to go into September with a double-digit division lead or in second place. And this year, with the three best teams in the National League all residing in the Central Division, there's no safety net of a wildcard spot.
It's impractical to give up on Upton long-term. He will still have four years and some $52 million left on his contract. But they can worry about that in the offseason. Right now is not the time to worry about budgets or egos or 2014. All that matters now is winning.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org