ATLANTA — Less than 24 hours after the end to a disappointing season, many of the lockers at Turner Field were already cleaned out Monday.
The Atlanta Braves were able to get an early start on the offseason.
The final week was essentially meaningless — the first time the Braves have been in that situation since 2009. The players were able to gather their belongings ahead of schedule, leaving the clubhouse largely deserted Monday except for reliever Luis Avilan packing up some boxes. Several name tags had already been removed from atop the lockers, perhaps the most telling sign of a franchise in transition.
Gonzalez plans to meet Wednesday with interim general manager John Hart, though any decision about the manager's future will likely be left until the new GM is hired.
"I think the first piece is hiring a GM," Gonzalez said, sitting in the office he inherited from Bobby Cox after the Hall of Famer retired in 2010. "Everything will go pretty quickly after that."
Gonzalez has led the Braves to a pair of playoff appearances and an NL East championship during his four years at the helm. But this season, the team collapsed in September under the weight of a feeble offense and finished 79-83 — only its third losing record in the last 24 years and a staggering 17 games behind the division champion Washington Nationals.
Making matters worse, both the Nationals and the wild-card Pittsburgh Pirates clinched their playoff berths at Turner Field, meaning there were two champagne celebrations in the visiting clubhouse.
"It stinks," third baseman Chris Johnson said. "It's definitely a down year — big time — any time this organization doesn't make the playoffs."
The Braves' biggest problem was easy to pinpoint: the offense was miserable most of the season and downright pathetic as the team went 7-18 in September, ruining any hopes of making the playoffs. Atlanta was held to three runs or fewer, including six shutouts, in 18 of its final 25 games.
"We just didn't produce any offense," Gonzalez said. "The pitching was good all year."
Indeed, the rotation performed much better than expected after projected starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down with season-ending elbow injuries on back-to-back days during spring training. Ervin Santana was hastily signed to a one-year deal and went 14-10. Aaron Harang was a bargain pickup, going 12-12 with a 3.57 ERA. Julio Teheran (14-13) and Alex Wood (11-11) both posted ERAs under 3.00 but were plagued by a lack of run support.
Santana, who made $14.1 million this season, is unlikely to return. But there's still the making of a solid rotation, assuming Mike Minor bounces back from a disappointing season (6-12, 4.77).
The offense is another story.
Other than Justin Upton, who had 29 homers and a career-best 102 RBIs, no one performed up to expectations. The Braves were counting on bigger numbers from Freddie Freeman (.288, 18 homers, 78 RBIs), Jason Heyward (.271, 11, 58), Andrelton Simmons (.244, 7, 46) and Johnson (.263, 10, 58). Evan Gattis (.263, 22, 52) was sidelined frequently by injuries and illness.
Then there were Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, two of the highest-paid players on the team.
Uggla was hitting .162 when he was cut in mid-July, forcing the Braves to eat the remainder of his $13 million salary this season, not to mention another $13 million he is owed next year.
B.J. Upton, Justin's older brother, is still on the roster but looking like one of the biggest busts of the free-agent era. He hit just .208 with 12 homers, 35 RBIs and a franchise-record 173 strikeouts — which was actually an improvement on his first year in Atlanta but hardly what the team expected from a player who still has three seasons left on a five-year, $75.25 million contract.
"Putting a lineup together was a challenge every single day," Gonzalez said.
With Upton scheduled to make $14.45 million in 2015 and the Braves still on the hook for the last year of Uggla's contract, the next general manager will face a tough challenge reshaping the offense with some significant financial limitations.
Nevertheless, look for some big changes.
"The new people will come in with their own ideas of what it takes to make a winning ballclub," Johnson said. "No one in here is safe, no matter who you are."
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