Fredi Gonzalez’s Decision-Making Is Not Helping the Braves

The Atlanta Braves have followed up their 2011 collapse with an 0-4 start to the 2012 season. The Braves have simply been terrible in 2012. Their .229 wOBA is 29th in the majors, they rank 29th in BABIP against, and they are tied for 29th in run differential. Not all of this can be blamed on the manager and it is only four games, but Gonzalez is in line for criticism for his bullpen usage and playing time decisions.

I try to resist criticizing the decisions of major league managers. They have much more information that those of us on the outside do. By virtue of being with the team every day, they also have the ability to use their wealth of information in the proper context. Lineup decisions that analysts criticize on baseball grounds may in fact be based on factors not publicly known. Despite my hesitancy on this front, some of the decisions made by Fredi Gonzalez in the early days of the 2012 season appear to be indefensible.

Last night the Braves were opening a series against the Houston Astros and facing lefty starter J.A. Happ. Gonzalez chose to sit Jason Heyward for this game with Matt Diaz starting in RF, Martin Prado in LF, and Juan Francisco at 3B. The is a lineup that is inferior both offensively and defensively to Diaz in LF, Heyward in RF, and Prado at 3B.

For his career, Diaz has had a lot of success against lefties with a .374 wOBA. Prado has a identical .339 wOBA against both lefties and righties. Heyward has certainly had his struggles against lefties with a .310 wOBA compared to .365 against righties, but Juan Francisco has been terrible with a .202 wOBA in a very limited sample size. Though given his minor league track record against southpaws, Francisco’s MLB numbers are not surprising. Despite the players’ past performances, Gonzalez chose to play the iron-gloved Francisco (115 errors in 533 minor league games) instead of Heyward. Francisco went on to make three errors in the first three innings of the game, including two on one play, which eventually led to a three-run inning by the Astros.

Why was Francisco playing? According to Braves’ beat writer David O’Brien, Gonzalez wanted to “see him hit against a lefty.” It is hard to imagine what new information Gonzalez thought he’d garner by seeing two or three plate appearances against one pitcher, but even if Gonzalez thought he’d gain new insights into Francisco it is hard to justify weakening your team at the plate and in the field for a data-gathering exercise. That is what Spring Training is for, no? Francisco could end up being a useful part for the Braves given how fragile Chipper Jones is at this stage of his career, but unless there are no better options available he should not be starting against lefties.

Things did not get better from there. Trailing by one run after five innings, Gonzalez turned the game over to Livan Hernandez, who promptly gave up two runs in the bottom of the sixth. Hernandez is a useful guy to have around as a long-reliever or spot-starter, but he should not be used in medium or high leverage situations. Neither Jonny Venters nor Craig Kimbrel pitched on Sunday and were likely available. Kris Medlen and Eric O’Flaherty were also likely available given that they each pitched only one inning on Sunday, and did not pitch Friday or Saturday. When Hernandez entered the game last night the Braves has a .259 win expectancy that had plummeted to .115 by the end of Hernandez’s inning of work. Down by one run to what is expected to be the worst team in MLB is not the time to punt the game.

Gonzalez’s bullpen usage on Saturday was also bizarre. Trailing the New York Mets 3-2 in the middle of the seventh, he turned to Chad Durbin despite having Venters, Kimbrel, Medlen, and O’Flaherty all available due to Friday’s off day. When Durbin entered the game vs. the Mets the Braves’ win probability was .222, which quickly plummeted to .128 by the end of Durbin’s seventh inning. Last season Gonzalez was roundly criticized — perhaps unjustifiably — for over using his best relievers. He seems to have responded in 2012 by throwing in the towel in game that the Braves trail. Given how anemic their offense has been, the Braves may have lost both of these games no matter who came out of the bullpen. However, when facing two teams predicted to finish in the cellar of their divisions, neither of whom have deep bullpens, I would like see Gonzalez take advantage of his team’s strength — a great bullpen — to keep the team in these games.




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I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.


57 Responses to “Fredi Gonzalez’s Decision-Making Is Not Helping the Braves”

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  1. lester bangs says:

    You can write this every year until he’s fired. Dreadful manager.

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  2. Ben Duronio says:

    Can’t say enough that this was extremely well-written and spot on. Great stuff, Jason.

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  3. JT says:

    Great analysis. You didn’t even mention that Diaz couldn’t get to a ball hit to deep RF that Heyward likely could have gotten.

    Fredi just doesn’t “get it”. Starting Francisco last night was completely baffling as is his overuse so far of Durbin and Francisco. Durbin and Livan should be the last guys to be used in a 1 run game.

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    • deadpool says:

      Has Kimbrel even pitched yet? I get trying to keep their pitch count down, but they still need to work.

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      • Anon21 says:

        No, he hasn’t. Hard to blame Fredi for that particular circumstance in the sense that all ML managers seem to be affected by the Closer Fallacy.

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  4. windu says:

    Well to be fair to fredi, the braves just traded for Francisco a couple days before the season so he didnt have a chance to see him in spring.

    Anyway, fredi has been awful to watch manage, he seems to take bad managing to another level. And I fear that unlike last season the back end of the bullpen will be under utilized.

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    • bstar says:

      Yeah, my only defense of Fredi here is that Chipper was coming back the next day, so (thankfully) it might be awhile before Francisco will see a full game’s worth of at-bats. That might have made a little sense as the Braves were playing the worst team in the league, but not when you’re 0-3 out of the gate.

      As far as the Livan usage, it’s just a WTF at this point.

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  5. curtisjones says:

    As inept as Fredi is, (and that river runs deep) I think the real culprits are the scouts. It’s their job to monitor opposing teams’ players, and compile reports on how useful an available player may be when the Braves go shopping. Somebody green-lighted Francisco, Livan Hernandez, and Chad Durbin. Somebody convinced Wren that these guys had some major-league abilities…Somebody convinced Wren that Francisco had a major-league glove, and that these pitchers still had some gas left in the tank. And in some cases, Wren has seen these players for himself (primarily Livan).

    Fredi’s in-game managing skills are abysmal, no doubt. But whoever thinks Durbin, Livan, Francisco, Diaz, Jack Wilson and Constanza are major league caliber clearly has no business stocking the Braves roster.

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    • Micah says:

      I agree with you on Durbin – makes no sense for him to be on the team considering there were players already on the team in Spring Training who were better than him.

      However, Livan and Juan are both useful pieces that thus far are being used mostly incorrectly by the manager.

      Durbin should never be used at all, so any time he goes in it is incorrect usage.

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      • Franco says:

        As a Mets fan, it’s more baffling that your GM and manager who’ve seen a ton of Livian and Durbin the last couple years would think they’re any good in these situations.

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      • Will says:

        Franco, I think you have solved the mystery. Fredi has seen these players frequently.

        Livan 2010-2011 vs Fredi managed teams: 42.2 IP, 2.74 ERA (and don’t forget the Cuban connection)

        Durbin 2008-2010 vs Fredi managed teams: 23.1 IP, 3.09 ERA, 24 K

        Francisco career vs Fredi managed teams: 1.250 OPS (1 for 4, 1 HR, nevermind the 3 Ks)

        Fredi likes what he sees.

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  6. Pedro says:

    Pretty much word for word what I’ve been preaching all day. Fredi’s decisions — particularly as to the guys we picked up off the scrap heap — have been genuinely idiotic (i.e., there is no reasonably logical defense available).

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  7. glassSheets says:

    Add in Constanza batting in each of the first three games while David Ross didn’t see one. But using Livan and Durbin in one run games seems very odd looking in from the outside. Heck, acquiring Durbin was odd considering Gearrin seemed ready to make the club but then got sent to AAA to keep Flande pretty much solely because Flande was a lefty, then Flande got sent to AAA to acquire the right handed Durbin.

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    • jorgath says:

      As a Nats fan, I was highly amused by the following sequence:
      Livan Hernandez replaced by Chad Durbin.
      ???
      Justin Maxwell homers.

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  8. scottnan says:

    Spot on. Hate to see good young players like Heyward pay the price for organizational idiocy.

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  9. VJO says:

    Can we somehow turn this into a meme?

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  10. Micah says:

    I’m starting to grow concerned that Fredi doesn’t know Spring Training is over…

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  11. fantasystud1305 says:

    Gonzalez seems like a good guy but as a Braves fan, his managerial decisions have driven my crazy from day one. He LOVES to hit-and-run with two strikes and slow base-runners on, sits his young horse (Heyward) after 3 games of the season, and his bullpen issues are clearly documented above. While it is not his fault that Durbin is on the roster, he is certainly not obligated to put him in high-leverage situations several times in the opening four games of the season. I am all for giving people time to establish a routine but I am tired of Gonzalez. The Braves are not a team that is talented enough to make the playoffs while losing close games they may have won with better managing. It’s only been four games but I think I speak for all Braves fans when I say it’s been a feeling I’ve had since our collapse last year.

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  12. davidsonrva says:

    Great, well written piece. It’s nauseating watching this team play right now, especially seeing so many great guys sitting the bench while low-A quality players are run out there.

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  13. cthabeerman says:

    There’s a few things that people, including the author, are overlooking here.

    Livan Hernandez was not brought into the game in a medium or high-leverage situation. The LI was 0.84. He really didn’t pitch that poorly, either, the results just weren’t favorable.

    First batter hits a little flair that falls in. Wasn’t a hard hit ball at all, it just falls where the defense isn’t. Next batter gets out on a fielder’s choice. 1 out.

    Next batter hits a DP-inducing grounder to the SS…except Pastornicky left to cover second on a hit-and-run. It’s a single and the runner goes from first to third. If the runner doesn’t steal, the Braves are out of the inning.

    Solid single follows. This is the only solid ball hit off Hernandez.

    Schafer follows that up with a bloop single. Again, ball wasn’t hit hard, it just landed where the defense wasn’t.

    Sac fly next, second run scores. Hernandez strikes out Lee to end the inning.

    The only high-leverage situation Livan actually faced in the inning was following the successful hit-and-run (1.76). What are you going to do, take him out after he gives up a weak single, a fielder’s choice and a grounder that should have been an inning-ending double play??

    -C

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    • cthabeerman says:

      I should note that I agree with the rest of the article, for the most part.

      -C

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    • Undocorkscrew says:

      “What are you going to do, take him out after he gives up a weak single, a fielder’s choice and a grounder that should have been an inning-ending double play??”

      When you have Medlen, Kimbrel, O’Flaherty, and Venters all available, yes…..He used a middle-reliever that tops out at 85mph in a one-run game.

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  14. Jason, nice piece man. It is nice to know that other people besides Braves fans/wrtiers/bloggers are aware of the affect Fredi is having on the team. Good stuff.

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  15. FieryFurnaces says:

    But beyond Fredi: isn’t this a management issue? Frank Wren hasn’t exactly done a lot in his time and he’s the one stocking the shelves. The Braves don’t score runs and haven’t for a few years. The problem will only worsen as the cost of offense is already starting to skyrocket and the Braves have shown no interest in investing in hitters. Pitching is what is getting cheaper, at least in the general sense. I get the distinct feeling that the Braves are keeping Fredi around for no good reason except cost and saving face. There’s no way they fire him before mid-May.

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    • Undocorkscrew says:

      Braves were 5th in runs scored and 1st in OBP in 2010 and they were near the bottom in HR, with basically the same team they had last year. Last year everyone decided to swing for the fences, which led to them being 2nd or 3rd in the league in HR, but near the bottom in OBP. Doesn’t help that seemingly every player hit below their career norms…..

      The offense will get going, it’s a talented lineup. I don’t see Heyward, Prado, and Uggla struggling like they did last season.

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  16. RS says:

    Right on the money Been following the Braves since 1990 Fredi has no clue no way he should have played new guy on third terrible decision WHY the late roster changes? Adding Livan and Durbin don’t make sense and then use them in tight ball games while your top four are ready to go? Like the Great vince Lombardi said ” What the He** is going on out there? My move RIGHT NOW: Get rid of Fredi immeidately Put Durbin on waivers; bring up the Lefty and as soon as Varvaro is ready goodbye Livan RS:

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  17. Phantom Stranger says:

    I’m not sure the reason for all the venom and scorn for Fredi in this thread. He was probably most responsible for the late-season collapse as he had burned out the bullpen by the end of the season, but on the whole has shown he is a solid manager.

    These decisions by him would be glossed over early in the year if the team was hitting anything. The offense once again looks putrid and it becomes a questionable GM strategy to go into a season where your two best hitters (McCann and Chipper) probably won’t play more than 120 games each in the season.

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    • Brain of G says:

      Is this sarcasm? Or have you just not been following the Braves over the last year? You’re going to have to explain what you’ve seen to infer that he is a solid manager. The man makes questionable decisions like aunt jemima makes pancakes.

      Thank god Chipper is back so we don’t have to watch Fredi insert Constanza into the line up just so he gets the chance to say Vvvroooooom!

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    • bstar says:

      I don’t really buy that Fredi’s overusage of the bullpen was what caused the September collapse. Their hitting, starting pitching, and defense were far, far worse than the bullpen in September.

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  18. NEPP says:

    People (less knowledgeable people) used to point to those young Marlins teams and say they were overachievers and they then praised Fredi for his good work. They should have realized that Fredi was really a huge anchor on them and he made them underachieve much like he’s doing in Atlanta. He’s one of the worst bullpen managers I’ve ever seen and as a Phillies fan I have to deal with Charlie Manuel’s bumbling on a daily basis.

    Fredi is the LVP for the Braves. If I were a Braves fan, I’d be terrified of him destroying Kimbrel’s career through overuse.

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    • Undocorkscrew says:

      I don’t blame him for overworking the bullpen last year. What other choice did he have? The starters weren’t going deep into games and the offense was pathetic. They played a TON of close games and when you’re in the middle of a playoff run and you have 3 borderline historical relievers in your pen while your offense is struggling to put up runs, what else can you do but use the best you have available?

      I’ll defend him for that, but running Livan and Durbin out there in close games is simply idiotic.

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      • bstar says:

        Agreed, Undo. Fredi wouldn’t have had to use O’Ventbrel so damn much if Scott Linebrink or Scott Proctor could have handled high leverage situations. They couldn’t. Proctor was so bad they outright released him. Also, O’Ventbrel were historically great(at least for 5 months) so it became harder and harder to give the ball to anyone else.

        Once the Braves looked like they had locked up a playoff position, Fredi did attempt to give the bullpen rest. It didn’t hurt O;Flaherty, as he didn’t allow a run in September. The big problem was Jonny Venters. I’m absolutely convinced that Venters actually pitches better when he’s used a lot, but perhaps not as much as last year overall. How effective O’Flaherty and Medlen are before Venters should really help keep his innings at a more reasonable total.

        But yeah, as I said earlier, WTF on Livan and Durbin.

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      • cavebird says:

        I have to disagree here. Sometimes you have to give them a rest and bring in the lesser relievers if you get too many high leverage situations. Kimbrel and Venters are under team control for four or five more seasons; letting them blow their arms out is very shortsighted. Sometimes critics cannot see the forest (the long term) for the trees (each individual game).

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    • Name says:

      I’ve been sayin’ it for years: managers are the least valuable players.

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    • ccoop says:

      just curious–what about using your best RP (madson) in the highest leverage spots and leaving lidge to record the glory outs is bumbling? more managers should pitch their best relief pitchers in the highest leverage opportunities…isn’t that the point of this article?

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  19. bflaff says:

    I hesitate to rise to the defense of Fredi, so maybe I’ll just post it as an applicable point for all managers at this point in the season: with the luxury of a 162 game season (which produces a more than tiny margin for error) managers can see if their marginal players are capable of performing in unfamiliar situations. Like, can I rely on [untested pitcher] to get it done in a meaningful spot? Let’s see if he can do it once, and if so, maybe I’ll try it again. Likewise, is [lefty batter x] getting better against lefties, or is he still so overmatched that I’ll need to pinch hit for him late in games? We see it a lot with managers cycling through the end of the bench players to see if any of them can succeed with some measure of reliability. It often winds up putting teams in suboptimal positions early on, but it is helping the manager (re)learn what his team can and can’t do, which hopefully makes them manage more optimally later in the season.

    Perhaps you will scoff and say that [x player] sucked in the past and always will suck, so don’t bother giving him playing time, but past performance is not a perfect predictor, and managers have to test their team to get a feel for its limits.

    So I’m OK with Fredi screwing around, because a) it’s the first week of the season, and b) I’m not a Braves fan. If he’s making these same mistakes in June, then we can talk.

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  20. Name says:

    Four wonderfully fulfilling words: Interim Manager Bobby Cox!!!!

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  21. Antonio Bananas says:

    Don’t you guys know? Kimbrel is only used in the 9th with a lead and a clean inning, Venters is only used in the 8th with a clean inning. Obviously, that’s the best way to use 2 of the most unhittable relievers in the game.

    I hate Freddi. You can’t defend his stuff at all. Doesn’t make any sense.

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    • Mike says:

      Spot on. Fredi seems to have a set formula for when to use his relievers. Unfortunately it isn’t based on anything besides his gut and the Hold and Saves stats.

      His Game 5 bullpen usage raised some questions as well. Leaving Medlen to start the 7th was defensible as it probably was more important to have a righty around to face Altuve and Martinez after Schafer. Although, this further highlights the folly of having Durbin around over Gearrin (that is probably on Wren – not sure though). It would have been ideal to bring in EOF to pitch to Schafer and then bring in Gearrin. Altuve and Martinez have shown pretty severe splits – albeit in small samples. And Gearrin is hell on righties. Also, Kimbrel should have faced Martinez in the 8th instead of Venters. It worked out but it wasn’t the right call. You can be sure Mariano would have been in the game at that point (if not a batter sooner).

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  22. Dave J. says:

    When Fredi Gonzalez went to a SABR convention a couple years ago, was he there just for the drinks?

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  23. AK Monsta says:

    Its agonizing listening to these first few Braves games so far. For a team with so much talent in a year with no clear cut favorite in the NL management needs to be swift in getting rid of Fredi, he was the wrong choice in the first place, but don’t wait until the season is lost to do something.
    Thank God 50 year old Chipper came back tonight, that’s scary.

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  24. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    Managers, like defensemen in soccer and whatever else, are only noticed when they screw up as they say.
    I know this guy! He’s made quite a bit of questionable moves against the Dodgers. Usually you only see a manager a few games a year and don’t have a good sample to judge them on, but not with this guy! That’s how i know he must be terrible, probably costs them 5-10 games a year.
    Have i told you how terrible Torre was?

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  25. JT says:

    While I think Fredi is an absolutely terrible manager, Frank Wren also is playing a role in the struggles of the Braves. Without Chipper the Braves are a predominant left-handed team that is vulnerable to LHP. So, what does he do? He trades a valuable trade chip for a LEFT handed power hitter. That leaves Matt Diaz as the only right handed pinch hitter on the bench (Ross is rarely used since he is the back-up catcher and Wilson is primarily a defensive replacement). And Diaz is another situation. He looks like his career is done yet the Braves traded for him last year. Jordan Parraz and Luis Durango both outplayed him in ST yet Diaz has a roster spot. Also, why did Jose Constanza even make the team? Durango/Parraz/Sutton outplayed him too in ST. If “Georgie” is on the team then Fredi will play him. Wren had to know that. Finally (and MOST important) WHY was Chad Durbin signed? Asencio, Flande and Gearrin all had decent ST stats yet Wren chose to sell off Ascencio for nothing and send Flande/Gearring back to the minors.

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  26. GTStD says:

    The thing that infuriates me the most about the Braves is that they prefer managers who are good clubhouse guys. As fans we tend to only focus on the on-field aspect of being a manager, but I think the Braves front office focuses more on the off-field aspects. Bobby and Fredi are both seemingly fantastic at maintaining a good atmosphere, resulting in a team with a great attitude, no bullshit from their players, and working well with the GM and front office.

    They are also both at best questionable and at worst abysmal at in-game decision making. We can try to quantify how poor decision making and lineup construction affect a team’s win totals. From what I’ve seen on this site and others, it seems that this probably results in a swing of a few wins at most over the course of the season. Based on the way last season ended, it’s not unreasonable to place the blame, at least partially, on Fredi’s decision making.

    However, we have no way of quantifying the effect of clubhouse mentality on performance. Much has been made of the Red Sox collapse last year being due to poor clubhouse discipline and poor chemistry, because Terry Francona is a much less blatantly bad in-game decision maker. Without Fredi’s seemingly positive effect on the clubhouse (following Bobby’s example), the Braves might never have had a 10.5 game lead to so dramatically lose.

    My point is that, while the Braves might want to start looking for a new manager, or at least a new method of decision making, it might be premature to fire Gonzales. Also, anyone who thinks the Braves front office would fire him mid-season clearly wasn’t paying attention to the fact that Fredi is Bobby’s anointed successor, and that GM Wren hesitates to replace ANYONE. If they finish 4 or 5 games out of the WC, I can see them finding a new manager, but I see zero chance of him being replaced mid-season.

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  27. supershredder says:

    For the record, I don’t think this was a well-written article. Normally I love stuff on FanGraphs, but his just sounds like an angry Braves fan ranting about things that sound really blown out of proportion. It makes perfect sense to me to give Heyward a rest and see what you have in J.Francisco versus a not-exactly-intimidating J.A.Happ. Plus, isn’t bringing in a reliever in the 6th considered middle relief? Isn’t that the role Livan has been designated with by the Braves? That wasn’t exactly a high leverage situation as has been pointed out earlier. Sounds like you’re just mad that your Braves picked up a lame third baseman and reliever and they co-handedly (?) lost this game. Be sure to blame your GM, too, for bringing these two lame ducks (Juan & Livan) on-board! Now, get back to writing about baseball players and not managers because Freddi Gonzalez is not on my fantasy baseball team!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  28. cavebird says:

    Interesting. Looks like it was taken from a Braves website. I don’t think I agree with much of the analysis. Saying spring training is a place to look at Francisco against lefties would make sense except that Francisco was acquired by the Braves right before spring training ended with enough time to play a whopping one spring training game for the Braves. As for the bullpen usage analysis, the whole criticism comes down to the author’s belief that the criticism of Fredi overusing the best bullpen arms last year was unjustified. I disagree. Venters and Kimbrell are great relievers with many years of team control yet. Letting them get Proctor-ed would be very short-sighted. But that is why criticism is easy—you can critique for not doing everything possible to win each game and then come back and critique after an injury to a key pitcher about bullpen overuse.

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  29. jmount78 says:

    It was great to see Chipper back last night, but he can only save us for so long. I know he is the spark plug for the offense, but he is fragile like any other 39 year old ball player would be. Where is the thinking long term here in trading a pitcher, any pitcher, for Francisco?

    I like Freddi, but I think the clubhouse needs a change in culture. I would like to see Ryne Sandberg given a shot at the job. Sandberg has been a winner in the minor leagues and paid his dues like no other HOF I have ever seen.

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  30. TomahawkChopper says:

    Braves up by 3, runners on the corners for the Astros in the 5th.

    “And Chad Durbin is the first one up”

    Sigh

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  31. Rick says:

    Let’s face it Fredi is no Bobby Cox!! But he does show some alternate paths to take with the players. Some work out and some don’t, that’s baseball. Will he be in Atalanta at the end of the season? God I hope so, for if not we are turning into the Yankee’s

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