November 18, 2004

Eye on Atlanta

Few teams got better production from bargain-price players than the Braves in 2004. Now, they'll try to find the resources to maintain them.

A lot of smart people picked the Phillies to win the NL East in 2004, considered by experts to be the year Atlanta couldn’t possibly do it again.

And then they did it again. Or rather, they did it again ... again.

It happened around the time Billy Wagner and Jim Thome were getting their Cortizone shots, Doug Glanville hesitated, and the Marlins swept the Phils in four, when Dr. Cox gave the Braves a shot of their own to help them scoot past the Phils, Mets and Marlins in one rapid twirl to their 13th consecutive division title.

It felt like a dream: Half a game; three and a half; seven; pop the bubbly.

Until I see it, it will be a cold day in hell before I pick a team other than Atlanta to win the division title. But for some reason, like the dumb shlubs who wrote them off before last year, it’s awfully tempting to do the same this year.

Awfully tempting.

Last year, the Braves entered the offseason determined to shave payroll, and did so to the tune of $15 million. They lost MVP candidate Gary Sheffield and his 39 HR, .330 AVG, .419 OBP, .604 SLG. They said goodbye to their catcher, MVP candidate Javy Lopez and his Babe Ruthian .328 AVG, .378 OBP, .687 SLG, easily one of the best seasons by a catcher in history.

They also bid a fond farewell the heart and soul of their team and maybe the best pitcher of the 1990s, Greg Maddux.

Now here they are again, with another division title under their belt and a possible mandate to cut payroll, though officials have vowed they will not.

Rightfielder J.D. Drew, their best hitter, and Jaret Wright, their best pitcher, are free agents, earning $4.2 million and $850,000, respectively, in 2004.

Free agents Russ Ortiz, $12 million, and Paul Byrd, $7 million, accounted for 38 wins.

And 46-year-old Julio Franco appeared in 84 games at first base at the rock-bottom price of $750,000.

On top of that, second baseman Marcus Giles, who earned $460,000 last season, and shortstop Rafael Furcal, $3.7 million, are eligible for arbitration, with Furcal potentially getting another $2 million if the team takes him to arbitration.

There's a lot on their plate, but there hasn’t been any player movement, on their part, since Oct. 16. Their name hasn’t been involved in any rumors except one involving Kevin Brown, which doesn’t seem likely considering the Yankees would swallow about $12 million of the $15 million owed to him next year.

Perhaps they're mulling over the fact they will be unlucky to resign both Drew and Wright from the 2004 squad. It’s more likely they will sign Wright, who has potential to be a staff ace, since Drew can now demand the kind of money owed a premiere outfielder in the league. Wright would be the better bargain, but not necessarily the better player.

The good news for the Braves, however, is a logjam at right field, especially among the spenders. Agent Scott Boras is handling two of them – Drew and Magglio Ordonez – who seem best suited for their 2004 team, or the New York Mets.

So is this the year hell freezes over and the Braves finish out of first? It certainly seems like the road is about to get harder ... yet they always seem to know where they're going and have the right map to get there.


At 9:54 AM, Blogger Tom G. said...

Great post. The only thing I would add is that there have been some rumblings about them trading Andruw Jones. I don't know how valid the talk is though.

Tom G

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Jason Weitzel said...

In researching this piece, Andruw Jones appears likely to stay for now, especially if they lose J.D. Drew to free agency. Losing both of them I suspect would be a major blow to their offense.

It also sounds like his "need for new scenery" is overblown. It sounds like he has a good work ethic off the field - but then again, that's coming from the Braves Web site.


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