|Braves May Still get Last Laugh||| Print ||
Written by David Wagner (Contact & Archive) on February 25, 2009
For Atlanta Braves fans, this offseason has been an emotional rollercoaster. When the season ended, the team was looking forward to acquiring new players to erase last year’s woeful season, plagued by injuries, the majors’ weakest-hitting outfield and a 72-90 record, the franchise’s worst since 1990. Braves GM Frank Wren stated his desire to acquire two proven starting pitchers as well as a power-hitting left-fielder, and with this year’s crop of free agents with such names as Sabathia, Burnett, Dempster, Manny Ramirez, and approximately $40 million of available payroll for 2009, it looked promising.
On the one hand, this has been a downright ugly offseason for Atlanta. They’ve gone after at least seven different acquisitions that have not panned out, leaving their fans feeling let down, angry and embarrassed. The first of these was Mike Hampton, who signed with the Houston Astros. While most fans would probably tell you they’re glad his fragile body and large paychecks are gone, many thought that he would repay the team that stuck by him through a myriad of injuries. Ryan Dempster was another free agent sought by Atlanta, but his return to the Cubs wasn’t too surprising nor disappointing for most Braves fans.
Then there was the seemingly inevitable Jake Peavy trade that never happened. For about six weeks, Wren and Padres GM Kevin Towers had extensive talks about sending the 2007 Cy Young winner to Atlanta, but they could never agree on which players and prospects Atlanta would send in return. Wren refused to include any of his top prospects, and when Towers kept asking for more whenever it seemed they had reached an agreement, Wren finally said enough and stopped all talks. Or maybe they did reach an agreement -- there have been reports in recent weeks that Peavy, who has a no-trade clause, vetoed a trade attempt, and possibly two, to Atlanta.
Having moved on from Peavy, Wren chose next to pursue free agent AJ Burnett, offering him a contract in the neighborhood of 5 years, $80 million. Braves fans were looking forward to a rotation led by the second-best free agent pitcher on the market until the Yankees swooped in and offered a slightly higher offer that Burnett chose.
Then, in mid-December, one of the most bizarre and messiest free agent situations occurred. There were reports that the Braves had reached a verbal agreement to bring shortstop Rafael Furcal back home to Atlanta. While the Braves have a potential All-Star in current SS Yunel Escobar, acquiring Furcal would have given the Braves flexibility -- they could have traded Escobar or 2B Kelly Johnson for a top-of-the-rotation starter, move Johnson to LF or have Furcal play 2B. Whichever way they went, the Braves would have a speedy lead-off hitter and the potential to bring in an ace. But when Furcal chose instead to stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers, members of the Braves’ brass expressed anger and hostility towards Furcal’s agent, vowing never to do business with the agency in the future.
Just when it seemed like the offseason couldn’t possibly get any worse, it did. News broke in early January that future Hall of Fame pitcher and mainstay John Smoltz had reached an agreement to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. That the Braves would allow their legend and face of the team to walk over a matter of a few million dollars infuriated not only fans, but also players on the team. Fellow veteran Chipper Jones publicly expressed his displeasure toward the front office, questioning their methods and hinting that he may not retire as a Brave himself.
Finally, in mid-February, it appeared that the Braves would add a veteran power-hitter to help in left field: there were reports that Ken Griffey, Jr. told a close friend that he would be playing for Atlanta instead of returning to the Seattle Mariners. It seemed that it would happen -- after all, Griffey himself initiated the talks with Atlanta. However, word is that these reports annoyed Griffey, causing him to rethink his decision. In the end, The Kid returned to Seattle, and Atlanta was once again left without their signee.
Braves To Get Last Laugh?
Despite losing out on seven different acquisitions and suffering one public humiliation after another, there is reason to believe that, in hindsight, this offseason will prove to be a success for the Braves. Of the seven players pursued, most of them have had extensive injury history, and while Peavy is the one not to have missed a significant amount of time, many believe that he will soon, especially after missing a month in ’08 due to elbow problems. Given that the team’s major bugaboo last season was injuries, it will be interesting to see how many of these players will miss a significant amount of time on the disabled list.
In fact, one could argue that Wren has done an amazing job this offseason by adding veterans who can log lots of innings to the starting rotation while -- and here’s the most important thing -- not giving up any of the franchise’s top prospects. Signing Derek Lowe, Japanese ace Kenshin Kawakami and returning veteran Tom Glavine will only cost the team money, nothing in terms of prospects and young players. It’s true that in order to acquire workhorse Javier Vazquez, Wren had to give up the power-hitting catching prospect Tyler Flowers and speedy infielder Brent Lillibridge, but Flowers is still in low-A ball and not likely to have a spot in Atlanta anytime soon -- Brian McCann will be behind the dish until at least 2013. While Lillibridge showed flashes of promise with Atlanta in ’08, it seems that the Braves’ once-high hopes for him had already vanished.
Their farm system is a tremendous strength, and Atlanta could start seeing dividends as early as this summer. Starting pitcher Tommy Hanson, MVP of the Arizona Fall League, could get a shot to start games at Turner Field later this summer, if not out of Spring Training. Jordan Schaefer will compete for the starting CF spot in ST as well. RF Jason Heyward and 1B Freddie Freeman, both of whom have strong power potential, still need at least another year of minor league experience but could see time in Atlanta as early as 2010. More strong pitching in the minor leagues could enable the team to stock their rotation and bullpen through the next decade. Not to mention that they also still have Jorge Campillo, Charlie Morton, Jo-Jo Reyes and James Parr, capable pitchers that can make a spot start or be used in a midseason trade.
So, Braves fans, hang in there. While this offseason has been a rocky ride, you may be celebrating in the not-too-distant future.