Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four

Don’t blame Fredi Gonzalez for last night’s loss. Blame the Braves culture.

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I got a lot of emails asking me if I had a heart attack and died after last night’s game. Folks: I’ve been watching the Braves woof themselves out of the playoffs early for many-a-year now. So, yes, it sucked, but any Braves fan claiming their heart was unexpectedly ripped out last night is either very young or hasn’t been paying a lot of attention. You steel yourself for that at this point.

More specifically, people are asking about the decision to let David Carpenter pitch to Juan Uribe with a man on in the eighth last night rather than go to Craig Kimbrel. About that, my thoughts are a bit mixed.

Yes, in an ideal world you use your best relievers in the highest leverage situations. Craig Kimbrel is your best reliever. A man on in the eighth with the go-ahead run at the plate in an elimination game is as close to as high-leverage as it gets. You put Craig Kimbrel in there. I put Craig Kimbrel in there. Earl Weaver and Joe Torre put Craig Kimbrel in there. It’s the smart move. You don’t save him for the ninth inning when everything can be lost in the eighth.

But Fredi Gonzalez didn’t. And, more to the point, Fredi Gonzalez doesn’t put Craig Kimbrel in there. Ever. It’s not in his history, not in his makeup and there is zero reason to ever have expected Fredi Gonzalez to go to his closer for the six-out save in that situation. As such, to act as if he screwed up massively in not doing so — to claim that this was some uniquely profound brain fart — takes no small amount of hindsight and wishcasting and a great deal of ignorance about who the man at the controls actually is, as opposed to what we wish would have happened.

Don’t construe this as a defense of Fredi Gonzalez. It’s not. Not exactly, anyway. He has by-the-book-itis and by-the-book-itis is what allowed Uribe to hit that home run. But it’s a chronic, even congenital condition on his part, not something which attacked him out of nowhere between innings last night. Indeed, by-the-book-itis afflicts the Braves organization like hemophilia afflicted the Hanoverian monarchs. It’s always there. It didn’t just attack suddenly on October 7, 2013.

Fredi Gonzalez learned this way of thinking from Bobby Cox and had it reinforced in a thousand ways by an organization which always has and, until there is new leadership, always will value and reward people who do things in painfully conventional ways. Doing things the right way, as Brian McCann might say. Indeed, if you don’t see a thread connecting all of that unwritten rules stuff from September and what led Fredi Gonzalez to use his setup man in the eighth and save Kimbrel for a bit, you haven’t been paying attention to the Atlanta Braves very long. It extends to their offseason moves and payroll decisions and everything else.

Sometimes it’s a good thing. There are a lot of conventions that have become that way because they make sense, in baseball and in life. The Braves have never mortgaged their farm system and, as such, have spent relatively little time as an uncompetitive team over the past 22 years. Most of their trades work out OK because they don’t take huge risks. When they have “gone for it” in mildly aggressive ways it has burned them, such as trading Adam Wainwright for a year of J.D. Drew or multiple prospects for Mark Teixeira, and I believe they’ve made note of that. On the whole, the organization’s success, such as it is, is due to a certain small-c conservatism. And, on the whole, there has been a good amount of organizational success.

As we saw last night, however, that small-c conservatism can and often is the difference between being merely good and being great. And it’s hard to see a situation in which the Braves can transcend the merely good given the organization’s overall culture. No one got fired when the Braves woofed away a playoff spot in 2011. No one, most likely, is going to get fired for the Braves’ latest early playoff exit. The organization just doesn’t roll that way. It seems content to be merely good. And it has never really rewarded bold, outside-the-box (or outside-the-book) thinking.

Did Fredi Gonzalez cost the Braves that game last night? In a way. But it wasn’t because he committed some massive screwup. It’s because he was doing things he has always done them and in the way his organization wants him to, either directly or indirectly.

Gerrit Cole named Pirates’ Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photograph during MLB spring training photo day on February 19, 2017 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Right-hander Gerrit Cole is set to take the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day, according to a team announcement on Saturday. It’s a spot that was most recently occupied by former Pirate Francisco Liriano, who made three consecutive Opening Day starts for the club before getting dealt to the Blue Jays last August.

The 26-year-old produced career-worst numbers during his fourth run with the Pirates in 2016, due in large part to bouts of inflammation in his right elbow. He finished the year with a 3.88 ERA, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 116 innings before getting shut down in September to avoid further injury to his elbow. When healthy, however, Cole has been lights-out for the Pirates. Prior to his injury-laden campaign last year, he touted a career 3.07 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and cumulative 10.2 fWAR from 2013 through 2015.

Cole will go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox during Boston’s home opener on Monday, April 3. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is scheduled to make the second start of the year, while fellow righty Ivan Nova will cover the Pirates’ home opener against the Braves on April 7. The Pirates’ third and fifth starters have yet to be announced.

Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery could share Cubs’ rotation spot in 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01:  Mike Montgomery #38 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Six of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 1, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon hasn’t selected a fifth starter for his 2017 rotation yet, but told reporters that he could envision left-handers Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery sharing the spot throughout the year. Neither pitcher was stretched out to the full 200-inning threshold last year, Maddon added, and suggested that the two could alternate innings out of the rotation and bullpen as needed (via MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat).

Anderson, 29, was acquired by the Cubs in January on a $3.5 million deal. He’s coming off a rough 2016, during which he underwent back surgery and missed all but 11 1/3 innings of his last season with the Dodgers. His last full, healthy year in the majors yielded a 3.69 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 5.8 SO/9 over 180 1/3 innings with Los Angeles in 2015.

Montgomery, meanwhile, is vying for a rotation spot after pitching almost exclusively from the bullpen during the second half of the Cubs’ 2016 run. The 27-year-old lefty put up a 2.82 ERA, 4.7 BB/9 and 8.9 SO/9 over 38 1/3 innings for Chicago last year, returning in the postseason to post a 3.14 ERA during the Cubs’ championship finish.

Maddon also mentioned the possibility of throwing a sixth starter into the mix, which would help prevent his other starters from getting overworked too early in the year. Either way, Anderson and Montgomery are expected to get a lot of looks early in spring training as rotation spots are finalized in the weeks leading up to Opening Day.