Don't count Braves out

The Braves are in the thick of the NL East race ... and have no plans to deal for anything other than a title.

Originally Published: July 7, 2004
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

At the July 31 trading deadline, will the Braves be buyers or sellers? Due to Atlanta's astounding success, that question that hasn't been asked in nearly 15 years. "When guys [reporters] call me and leave that question, I don't call back,'' says Braves general manager John Schuerholz. "How dare they suggest we do anything but we need to do to win.''

John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox
John Schuerholz, left, and manager Bobby Cox face perhaps their greatest challenge this year.

The Braves haven't been sellers since 1990, the last year they didn't make it to the postseason. Since then, they've been the ones who've added at the deadline, sometimes small pieces such as Mike Devereaux (who wound up being an LCS MVP), sometimes big ones such as Fred McGriff, Denny Neagle and Alejandro Pena. That's where Schuerholz is at his best, finding that last guy he needs to take the Braves into the playoffs, and beyond.

This year, however, is different. The Braves cut $15 million in payroll in the winter, which cost them over half their home runs and RBI, and made them one of two teams in history (the other was the 2004 Rangers) to lose two, 35-home run hitters (Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez) in the same offseason. These Braves no longer are the front-runners to acquire the best player available, as they once were with McGriff. But they're not giving up.

"I can't think that way,'' Schuerholz says. "It's my in nature. It's not in the organization's nature. We have to be more creative. More innovative. We need to try to win.''

The Braves have a chance. Despite all the personnel losses from the offseason, despite all the injuries this season and the disappointing seasons from some of their best players, the Braves entered Wednesday a game above .500. They trailed the first-place Phillies by only 2½ games in the National League East. "If Chipper Jones [.214] and Andruw Jones [.250] were hitting what they usually hit, and we hadn't lost Marcus Giles, our best player, we'd have a three- or four-game lead right now,'' Schuerholz said. "If you had told me [all the things that have gone wrong this year], I'd say we'd be a dozen games out of first place right now. But we said if could be within five or six games when Marcus came back, we would be in the fight.''

Giles, who hasn't played since breaking his collarbone May 15 in a collision with Andruw Jones, is due back July 15, the first day after the All-Star break. Horatio Ramirez, who has had a sore shoulder, "is due back soon,'' says Schuerholz. When they return, they'll see somewhat of a new look; that is, Chipper Jones back at third base to protect his hamstring injury. The Braves, despite all of their division titles, have re-made their team several times in the offseason. This year, they had to do some of it during the season, another reason why Bobby Cox will someday be recalled as the one of the best managers ever.

Green
Green

Giles
Giles

The Braves have been helped by some minor-league recalls, including Giles' replacement, Nick Green, who has been "sensational,'' says Schuerholz. Rookie Charles Thomas has done a nice job in left field, replacing injured DeWayne Wise, who had replaced Chipper Jones there. And, of course, the key acquisitions made by Schuerholz the last two years have been terrific: catcher Johnny Estrada made the All-Star team, and right fielder J.D. Drew has had an All-Star season. They, along with decent starting pitching and a great closer (John Smoltz), have kept the Braves in the race when it appeared there was little chance.

Now the plan is to keep Russ Ortiz, their best starting pitcher. He is a free agent after this season, and might not re-sign with Atlanta. But instead of dealing him, the Braves are going to try to win with him. Instead of dealing a veteran bat such as Julio Franco, they're going to keep him as part of their platoon at first base. Instead of subtracting, they might add even though they don't have the funds or the resources they've had in other years.

"I think we can,'' says Schuerholz. "We have to be creative. But we feel good things are ahead.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.