Where Do We Go From Here? 2004 (Introduction)

Another season, another division title, another first-round loss in five games to an historically star-crossed opponent. We’ve been here before.

The Braves “overachieved” this year, winning ten to fifteen more games than predicted. It wasn’t a situation where their record overstated the quality of the team; they were legitimately a 96-win caliber team. What happened is that some players played better than had been expected, though not really out of the range of their abilities. Foremost of these were:

Jaret Wright, who emerged as a legitimate top-line starter;
J.D. Drew, who didn’t really play any better than he has before, just stayed healthy;
Johnny Estrada, who hit for the high average he had in the minor leagues last year, which at the time was widely declared a fluke.

Of course, Wright lost two games in the NLDS, and Drew went into a deep slump. Estrada hit two homers, so it breaks down from there, but it was largely the players who got the Braves there who let them down against the Astros. Their slumps weren’t really all that remarkable, just badly timed.

The Braves led the majors in ERA despite a rotation that was at all times somewhat a patchwork and which lacked a “true” #1 starter or Cy Young candidate. They scored an above-average number of runs despite losing an enormous number of home runs off of the 2003 ballclub and having Chipper Jones spend the entire first half in a slump, when he wasn’t hurt. Going forward, the Braves could improve, or at least stay at the same place, with only minor adjustments. On the other hand, if they follow the same formula as they did last season — allowing several key contributors to depart and bringing in mostly second-tier replacements — it will be difficult to maintain their success, must less build on it to return to pennant-winning form.

Both Wright and Drew are free agents; so are a fair number of their teammates. The Braves have a remarkably low, by recent standards, number of players under contract, though they control the destinies of several of these who haven’t reached the free agency threshold yet. Three-fifths of the second-half rotation are free agents. There are also a number of Braves who are more or less “young” players still who will start getting expensive soon, and whom the Braves will need to begin to make long-range decisions on. Meanwhile, they have something like $40 million, nearly half their projected payroll, tied up in just three players.

In the coming days, I will break down the Braves’ situation going forward, starting with the free agents they need to address.

19 thoughts on “Where Do We Go From Here? 2004 (Introduction)”

  1. How much more luck do the Braves have? Drew, Estrada, Wright, Thomas, Marrero, Nick Green, Antonio Alfonseca, LaRoche? I mean all of these guys managed to perform way better than their projections or their recent histories. How much of a gamble do you take that they can repeat them?

    Do you mean 40 million tied up in Andruw, Chipper and Smoltz? Throw in Hampton and you have 48 million. Or if the Braves didn’t pro rate his salary over the subsidized years then add another 15 million to that 40. Ouch!

  2. Oh, right, I forgot Hampton. So, $48 million. Well, a little less than that, because Chipper/Andruw/Smoltz don’t quite add up to $40 million, but still about $45 million. Ick. So they have $40 million, maybe, to pay everyone else.

  3. anyone else think trading Chipper to the A’s for one of their aces would be a good move? Maybe not likely but Chipper is their type of player (sabermetric guy with lots of walks, and good power) and they have been trying to dump one of the Big 3….. If the money on Chipper’s contract wasn’t so much maybe it is a possibility.

  4. I agree absolutely with what Mac said about our failure in the playoff this year. For the first time, I actually see Bobby doing some managing during the playoff rather than just waiting for the veterans to perform. Considering we had Wright, Chipper, Drew and Giles suddenly hitting slump at the same time, I think we did a good job by taking the series to five games. So, those four guys are pretty much the main reason for our first round lost this year.

    I agree with Mac that we need to find some legitimate players rather than some second tier replacement in order to improve on this year. I guess I will find out more in your article Mac, but the main questions are 1) whether Wright can really be our true No. 1 starter and 2) whether Drew is really the player we want to support Chipper?

    Personally, I donít have an answer for question 1. I thought Wright can be our true ace before the playoff starts, but considering the list of potential free agent of Pedro Martinez, Carl Pavano, Kevin Millwood, Jaret Wright, Russ Ortiz, Derek Lowe, Esteban Loaiza, Aaron Sele, Brad Radke, Matt Morris, Paul Wilson, Roger Clemens, Hideo Nomo, Matt Clement, Kris Benson, I donít really see a better option out there either. We are in good shape with Hampton, Thomson and Rameriz being our 2-3-4 starters. What we need is a true ace. However, I guess Wright may be our best option who fit into the budget. Should be move Smoltz back to the rotation and sign one of Trevor Hoffman, Troy Percival, Armando Benitez, Ugueth Urbina? This is definitely an option the Braves can explore.

    In respect of Drew, I am really not sure if Drew is the right guy to support Chipper. Not that Drew is not a good option, but we donít have enough fire power with Chipper being our number one power hitter. If Chipper can belt 40 HRs, then I think Drew is a good fit. However, I have to accept the fact that it is more realistic to expect 30 HRs from Chipper, and thatís not enough unless Andruw suddenly becomes another Adrian BeltreÖ

    Opinions?

  5. Trevor Hoffman, Troy Percival, Armando Benitez, Ugueth Urbina

    One thing they don’t want to do is overpay for a closer. I also hope they convert Smoltz to a starter–he wants to do it, and it’s the last year of his contract, so why not? But as far as replacing him as closer, I hope they choose an in-house option — someone (Cruz? Capellan?) who can be 80-90% of what Smoltz has been for 5-15% of the money. Save the bucks for the position players.

  6. The A’s wouldn’t take on Chipper’s contract, and anyway they have Chavez at third base.

    Never sign a closer to a big contract. I think that the Braves thought that if Smoltz was back for 2005 they might shift him to the rotation and make Reitsma the closer. That won’t happen now.

  7. We all see the impact of a great closer in the playoff, and I think Smoltz is great being a closer because of his flexibility to be able to pitch more than one inning. However, $12M for a closer is a luxury that only the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and the Mets can afford.

    For better use of our resources, putting Smoltz back to the rotation make sense. Reistma is definitely not an answer, and Cox wouldnít be comfortable using Cruz or Capellan there. So, unless we can get a proven closer, the chance is that Smoltz is likely heading back to the bullpen.

  8. We all see the impact of a great closer in the post season.

    We also all see the impact of a great hitter in the post season.

    Bad fielding can have a pretty large impact in the post season too.

    Setup men can win or lose a playoff series, as the Braves just proved.

    Starters ain’t unimportant either.

    So yeah, its nice having one of the top 5-7 closers in the game. But paying $12.5m to a guy who pitches 70 regular season innings and 5 post season innings is a waste of (purportedly) limited resources.

  9. It was nice having Smoltz as the postseason closer; however, had he been a starter, he’d have been in games 1 and 5, not Jaret Wright.

  10. A decent article from ACJ, except for the part saying giving Wise a chance in RF…

    The good news is that they are not cutting costs.

  11. The Braves are basically the Minnesota Twins now, essentially a mid-market team with little ability to make significant moves (unless Time Warner suddenly decides it wants to win the World Series.) They have been relying on Scheurholz to work his magic and keep the team competitive, but I see no reason to think they have any interest in really improving the team. McGuirk made a big deal by saying they weren’t going to cut payroll, but, in fact, given the number of free agents and arbitration-eligible players the Braves have, they are effectively cutting the payroll because they won’t be able to put together the same team for this amount of money. They can probably expect some improvement from the younger players–LaRoche looks like a player so first base may finally be a relative strength. But if they are seriously thinking about Wise in RF, it is an indication that they have given up. I don’t think they will go that far, but I think they will replace Drew with someone like Jacque Jones or someone of that caliber.

    I think this is what you are going to see from now on; rely on the farm system, pick up marginal players in trades and HOPE that the team can get lucky and get on a roll in the playoffs (assuming they make it) a la Angels and Marlins. I think its possible they could win the division again next year because it’s a pretty weak division, but I certainly don’t see them being any better than this year and probably not as good.

    It’s possible they might make a big deal to get some payroll flexibility. They were apparently about to trade Andruw last summer and, I think that is still a possibility given his salary and the fact that he is unlikely to ever be a superstar. That would enable them to re-sign Drew and maybe do something else. I think Chipper is untradeable (unless the Yankees want him for DH) because of his salary and his lessening performance in recent years.

    I would like to think that the loss this year was simply a precursor to a better team, but the party line still is “let’s celebrate how we overachieved and made the playoffs.” I don’t like that attitude, but I don’t think it’s going to change because I don’t see the Braves going out to do much. I think the organization is embracing this underdog label because they think that will resonate with fans, but there is no reason for this team to be an underdog except for Time Warner propaganda.

    What I would like to see if for them to give Cruz a shot in the rotation. With his stuff, he is the one realistic option they have to get a dominant starter. It’s clear that, despite Smoltz’s desire, the Braves are not going to put him back in the rotation and, at this point, you are only talking about a year or two anyway.

  12. kc, Yeah I read the AJC article too. I sure hope the Braves aren’t getting too cocky. Its one thing to wave the magic wand and get JD Drew to stay healthy and resurrect Jaret Wright but get starting performance out of DeWayne Wise? Not even God could do that.

    With 48 (just rounding up) million tied up in 4 players, the Braves are going to have another daunting off season facing them.
    1. find a productive RF. Scott Boras. enough said
    2. obtain a true #1 starter
    3. decide whether or not to rent their shortstop for a couple of more seasons or sign him.
    4. find a LF. Charles and Eli are coming off of career years. Nothing in thier history says sustained performance
    5. find some left handed relief, a set up man.
    6. decide whether or not to ‘use up’ John Smoltz as a starter. It’ll cost an additional 3 million assuming 30 starts but the guy will be 38 next year and in the last year of his contract.

    All that has to be done spending around 43 million dollars.

  13. Ok I just read what I posted and scared myself. The nucleus of this team is still good. I think that is what the Braves have done well in the past. Sign and keep a nucleus of players that are exceptional and fill in around them. Chip, Andruw, Giles, Furcal, Smoltz and because of his contract Hampton are the nucleus of this club. Its a good group. John Schuerholz is going to do something this off season that will blow our minds and cause major league complaining on sites like this one. I’ve second guessed the guys as much or more than anyone. I’ve also eaten as much or more crow than anyone. I might complain but I’ll never bet real money against him.

  14. John Schuerholz’s genius has taken a couple of forms, chiefly among them:

    1. Deciding which players to keep and which to allow to walk. He can usually replace a departing player more cheaply with similar performance.

    2. Finding B- players tooling along at C or C+ level and getting them cheaply.

    3. Hyping the hell out of our farm system (despite results?) to enable us to trade fungible commodities for valuable spare parts.

    I KNOW that taking the collection of scrubs that clutter this roster and the reasonably anticipated performance, an average GM would run this club to a 75 or 80 win level pronto. Schuerholz won’t do that and could well win 90+ with no extra resources.

    … But this team needs more than the JS (and Bobby and Leo) magic to get to 100 wins and a being a favorite in October. A front of the rotation anchor, solid 7th and 8th inning relief, and – expecting departure of Drew and reversion of Estrada – more offensive firepower.

  15. I think I’m worked up about the fact that Drew is leaving and we have no capable replacement. However, the same thing happened last year, and we ended up with him. Is there any other guy like him available for us to liberate, perhaps at the price of Jose Capellan and Chris Reitsma or something equivalent? I sure can’t think of any offhand.

  16. Although he isn’t exactly like Drew, Jason Bay may be someone who should be considered. The Pirates, if they indeed have any intelligence, should be pretty desperate for young pitching, and they should listen to offers for Bay.

    He’s not exactly a protypical #3 hole hitter. His walk/strike out rates suck, but he hits for average, power, and has speed. He’s only had one almost full season, but he’s 26 and should be entered his prime years. He makes almost nothing, and we shouldn’t have to give up too much to get him. What do you think?

  17. Also, what about some of the Twins’ outfielders? They have Lew Ford, Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones(who may be a free agent), Jason Kubel and Michael Restovich all in their outfield. They have Johan Santana and Brad Radke in their rotation, but after that is not much with Silva, Lohse, and Terry frickin’ Mulholland. They should be willing to deal from an area of strength for an area of weakness, just like us.

  18. If the Astros don’t want Jason Lane, I’d take him. If I’m not giving anything to come away, it’s quite likely that the Braves have considered Andy Marte for left field.

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