It'll be new-look Braves yet again
Out with the old: Greg Maddux. And in with the new: J.D. Drew. Yes, the Braves are changing once again.
So when the new, not necessarily improved Atlanta Braves take the field next April, what are the odds we'll be able to tell them from, say, the Devil Rays?
Oh, John Smoltz will still be receiving mail at Turner Field. As will Chipper Jones, Rafael Furcal and Andruw Jones. So that'll help. But even for a team that has specialized in constantly changing face while raising those first-place banners, the 2004 Braves have outdone themselves.
This isn't just a changing face anymore. This is reconstructive surgery. This is a team that ought to hang a sign over the dugout that says: "Under renovation."
"I thought last year, when we had four starting pitchers gone and people were asking how in the world we'd survive, that was our year of biggest change," said GM John Schuerholz on Saturday. "But this year, I think, we've even topped that."
Well, in case they hadn't topped it already, Schuerholz helped them along Saturday at the baseball winter meetings, by turning a five-player trade with the Cardinals. It was a deal that imported J.D. Drew to replace Sheffield in right field. Eli Marrero also came along for the ride, as a backup catcher-outfielder-first baseman super-utility whiz.
The Braves could afford to trade away Jason Marquis in this deal. And there are enough free-agent left-handed relievers out there that they can live without Ray King, too. But it tells you something about the current state of the Braves that they reluctantly agreed to trade away their best pitching prospect, Adam Wainwright, for a guy (Drew) who could easily be out the door in a year and who, in many ways, is still living off his college reputation as (ahem) The Best College Player Ever.
"We needed to make this deal," Schuerholz said firmly, when asked about that decision. "We thought (Drew) was the best guy out there -- for us -- either via trade or free agency."
Drew has been brittle and disappointing over five-plus enigmatic seasons in St. Louis. But Schuerholz said the Braves are doing that fabled glass-half-full take on his track record -- by telling themselves "he's had his injuries and dealt with them, and we view this year as the year he'll be healthy and play more games and have more production than in the past."
Well, if Drew ever is going to turn into that Next Mickey Mantle he once was billed to be, this had better be the time and the place.
He's going back home to Georgia. He's in his free-agent year. And he's going to a team that, in the words of one scout, "always seems to keep pushing the right button on guys who go over there, even for a year."
But one of these years, they know, they're going to push those buttons and buzzers will sound, sirens will ring and another first-place finish isn't going to pop out of the old vending machine. So the question is: Have they finally reached that point?
Only two Braves -- Smoltz and Chipper -- remain now from the team that won the 1995 World Series. Just three -- Smoltz, Chipper and Andruw Jones -- are left from the Braves of just four years ago, the team that got swept in the Series by the Yankees after winning more games (103) than any team in baseball.
|“||I thought last year, when we had four starting pitchers gone and people were asking how in the world we'd survive, that was our year of biggest change. But this year, I think, we've even topped that. ”|
|— John Schuerholz, Braves GM|
The now-departed Sheffield and Lopez accounted for 37 percent of the Braves' home runs this past season all by themselves. And Maddux, even in a year when he had his highest ERA since 1987, still won more games (16) than all but two of the approximately 4 trillion pitchers on this winter's free-agent market (Andy Pettitte and Sidney Ponson).
Now the Braves have replaced Sheffield with the often-exasperating Drew. Maddux's replacement is John Thomson, a guy who was nontendered just last winter by the Mets. Lopez's spot will be taken by the talented but unproven Johnny Estrada. And at first base, rookie Adam LaRoche will most likely platoon -- with somebody else (probably Julio Franco).
At least Schuerholz makes no pretense about the reason for all this. Money, of course. (You were expecting maybe food poisoning?)
The Braves are slashing payroll from about $95 million to approximately $80 million. But Schuerholz says he's doing his best to avoid singing another chorus of his now-famous rendition of The System Stinks Blues -- a tune he crooned last year, after trading Kevin Millwood, during what he later termed his "whining phase."
"Now," he laughed Saturday, "I'm not whining anymore. That's just the way it is. My whining era is over."
"But," John Schuerholz added over his shoulder, on his way out of the press room, "it still stinks."
Winter meetings rumblings
One baseball official said he'd been told the Yankees now were convinced that Sheffield finally "got the message" the team was delivering by avoiding his calls and pursuing Guerrero. And that meant the deal with Sheffield could be tied up shortly, at the rate Steinbrenner swore he'd agreed to -- three years, $39 million, with deferrals that bring the average annual value down to $12 million a year for luxury-tax computations.
GM Theo Epstein said he would like to get back some "flexibility" after adding Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to the payroll. But he said he wasn't interested in making deals just to subtract dollars.
"If we can make a move that makes us better and gives us flexibility, that's the way to go," he said. "But we're not just looking to dump."
Both Maddux and Kevin Millwood have told friends they're interested in signing in St. Louis. And there have been rumblings that manager Tony La Russa has been quietly lobbying for Maddux. But while Jocketty says he's still shopping for another starter, he didn't sound like a man who thought either Maddux or Millwood were in his price range.
"We have more financial flexibility, and we're in much better position to add more quality to our pitching staff," he said. "But we also have to add people in our outfield."
The Cardinals are looking for a left fielder, a right fielder and possibly a second baseman. La Russa has also pushed for Roberto Alomar to play second. But with Bo Hart on board at second, the corner outfield spots are a bigger priority. One name thought to be on their shopping list: Jose Cruz Jr.
"I don't know if they were going in another direction," Schuerholz said. "But I came to the conclusion that without him, I didn't think we'd be able to make the deal."
Wainwright, 22, was the Braves' most highly regarded young pitcher. But one scout said the Braves were actually getting worried because he wouldn't stop growing. It's believed he has grown from 6-foot-6 to close to 6-9 in the last year or so. And some scouts think his size has begun to affect his mechanics.