Gonzalez not lacking for influences in leading Braves through challenging season

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 01: Manager Fredi Gonzalez #33 of the Atlanta Braves watches from the dugout during the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on June 1, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 01: Manager Fredi Gonzalez #33 of the Atlanta Braves watches from the dugout during the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on June 1, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

ATLANTA -- It could seem like the convenient answer as Fredi Gonzalez is asked about the challenges of leading the Braves through a year that's included a litany of trades, injuries and wrangling the youngest pitching staff in the majors.

But the Atlanta manager doesn't hesitate in delivering it.

"This is the most fun I've had," Gonzalez said while sitting in the bowels of Turner Field during last weekend's alumni events. "It's been fun coming in every day with the group of guys we have. ... I've really enjoyed myself coming to work every day."

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And in figuring out how to navigate it all, he's been able to lean on his own experience, and the influence of watching a Hall of Famer at work.

With less than 50 games remaining and sitting 10 games out of first in the division, the Braves are on pace to go 73-89, which would be the franchise's worst record since 2008's 72-90 when they finished 20 games back.

The obstacles have been many, with just two position players -- Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons -- and pitcher Julio Teheran remaining from Gonzalez's 2013 National League East title team.

Despite the influx of five 30-somethings, including Jonny Gomes (34), Nick Markakis (31), A.J. Pierzynski (38), and recent acquisitions -- via last week's unloading of Chris Johnson -- Michael Bourn (32) and Nick Swisher (34), Atlanta has an average player's age of 27 and has seen 13 players making their debuts. Both of those figures lead the majors.

The Braves haven't had that much youth since 1990, the year before the dynasty began, when the average age was 25.8.

The brunt of this year's youth comes from the pitching staff, with its trio of 24-year-olds in All-Star Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran and Williams Perez, along with Mike Foltynewicz (23) and Matt Wisler (22). Now a Dodger, Alex Wood was also 24, as is Manny Banuelos, who is on the disabled list with elbow inflammation.

That influx of young arms isn't an unknown for Gonzalez.

"The young energy, the young players, the young pitching staff I think experiencing when I was in Miami in 2007, 2008, we had a young pitching staff," he said. "So going through that kind of you understand what we're going through now.

It was at its most glaring in former Marlins manager's 2008 staff that included 114 starts by five players 25 and under. But while that group got 19 starts by a 34-year-old Mark Hendrickson, these Braves have just 11 from Eric Stults (35) and Trevor Cahill (27), neither of which have been on the roster since early June.

The workload, as the Braves starters are 10th since the All-Star break with 143 1/3 innings entering Wednesday, could be proving a detriment as they're 22nd in the majors with a 4.83 ERA in that span. But Miller -- who is on pace for 193 innings, which would be a career high -- continues to dazzle with a 2.87 ERA over his last five starts and Julio Teheran is improving, allowing more than three earned runs once in his last seven outings.

Beyond his time in Miami, Gonzalez can also look back on the influence of Bobby Cox.

In 2005 when Gonzalez was third base coach, he watched Cox work in 18 rookies amid a team that included HOFer John Smoltz, future HOFer Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Tim Hudson en route to a 14th straight division title.

While his own veterans may not have resumes that stack up to that group and while this Atlanta team isn't in the East hunt, the examples those older players set for the Baby Braves -- Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann and Co. -- gave Gonzalez confidence in how to combine them effectively this season.

"I think what we have and what he had to -- because I was there -- was good veterans," Gonzalez said. "If you've got good, quality veterans that the players look up to, the Markakis, the Pierzynski, the Gomes -- guys that we traded, (Juan) Uribe, Kelly Johnson. (Then) the pitching staff, (Jason) Grilli got hurt, but Jim Johnson ... I think it helps the (younger) guys."

His point was made Friday as Markakis, who was 0-for-7 with the bases loaded this season, hit a two-run single off Marlins lefty-hander Mike Dunn in helping Atlanta to a 6-3 win. It was part of a 3-for-4 night for the right fielder and afterward rookie Todd Cunningham said "Everybody should want to be like Nick Markakis."

"Wen you see Markakis and Pierzynski have theses tough at-bats against a tough left-hander, it's fun to watch and it's nice to see those guys do those things," Gonzalez said.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney