Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Oddest Winter Meetings in Braves History

Yesterday, baseball kicked off its yearly winter meetings as general managers and officials from all 30 teams met in San Diego, along with agents and assorted players looking to get signed. It's at the winter meetings where a month of conversation goes from the theoretical to reality or where the need to make a quick deal can be struck. It's an exciting time or was the MLB Network hype machine about this week not enough for you to get excited?

The Braves seem likely to be a busy team this week, as David O'Brien writes. Trades involving Justin Upton and Evan Gattis have been explored while there are holes in the rotation plus weaknesses at catcher, second, and the bench. Of course, Atlanta has already been one of the busiest teams this offseason, acquiring Nick Markakis and Shelby Miller among others while saying adios to Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Jordan Walden, and Jason Heyward.

Even if the Braves do have a busy week, it probably won't come close to the week they had under former General Manager John Schuerholz in 2002. That week challenged our faith in Schuerholz as he was forced into a corner.

First, let's take a look at the background that led into the Winter Meetings. The Braves won 101 games in 2002, winning the East by 19 games over Montreal. They would fall in the NLDS against the Giants, but hey, it's the Braves. They are supposed to disappoint in October. Led by the Big Three, the Braves posted the best ERA in the league at 3.13 and that was with John Smoltz as the closer, where he nailed down 55 saves. Kevin Millwood had a 3.24 in over 200 innings while rookie Damian Moss had surprised a few with a 3.42 ERA, though his 4.77 FIP and 1.3 K/BB rate were red flags. Plus, with Jason Marquis possibly on the verge of a breakout and Adam Wainwright preparing for AA in 2003, the Braves had some youth on the way. The offense was disappointing in 2002 and ultimately led to their early playoff exit when they scored just four runs in the final two games. Still, the blueprint was there for a massive 2003 offensive explosion.

Change was inevitable. Both Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were eligible for free agency and there were question marks surrounding both. While Glavine posted a 2.96 ERA in 2002, the final sub-3.00 ERA of his career, his numbers had been falling. While never a strikeout pitcher, his K/BB ratios were often solid enough because his control was so good. Call it declining skills or QuesTec, but over a two year sample, Glavine walked 175 to 243 strikeouts, a K/BB of 1.4. To put that into perspective, no one who qualifies for the ERA title over the last two years has been that bad. In relation to his peers, Glavine was basically Kip Wells those two seasons. Wells didn't have the Hall of Fame resume, of course. Or the 18-11 season that would get Glavine paid following 2002. For Maddux, it was less about his actual pitching as he was still excellent, even if he understandably wasn't 1992-95 Maddux anymore. The only particularly glaring issues for Maddux in 2002 was that for the first time since '92, he walked at least two batters per nine innings. That doesn't seem significant, especially compared to Glavine, but going from 17 unintentional walks in 2001 to 38 the following year probably caused the conservative members of the Braves brain-trust pause. Also, for the first time since his rookie year, he failed to throw 200 innings. Now, that's splitting hairs because he threw 199.1 ING, but you search and over-think things for players on the wrong side of 35.

It seemed unlikely that both would return, if either. The Braves first tried their luck with Glavine. I've always had a healthy degree of doubt that the Braves wanted the left-hander to return at the time, but whether that's true or not, Glavine and Schuerholz were far away when negotiations began. Schuerholz was looking for a hometown discount, that much seems clear whether it be his side of things from his book, Built to Win, or what Glavine has confirmed. How much of a discount he was looking for is debateable. One particular story is that the first offer including very little in guaranteed money, but gave him a job in the front office once he retired (ironically, he currently serves in that capacity). Regardless of what you believe, what we absolutely know is that the Braves weren't anxious to hand over a long term contract. Meanwhile, the Phillies and Mets saw an opportunity to not only sign a quality pitcher, but hurt a rival. Glavine staunchly held out for a fourth year while the Braves were still iffy on promising the third year. Glavine continued to hold out and while he never was promised a fourth year, both the Phillies and Mets gave him conditional fourth year options. The Braves eventually answered with a three-year contract, but only if Glavine would agree to defer some of the money. A week and a half before the winter meetings, he signed with the New York Mets.

A few weeks before that defection, though, Schuerholz began his restructuring of a rotation by working what eventually turned into a three-way trade with the Rockies and Marlins with eight players and cash moving around. The Braves surrendered a couple of pitchers, including Tim Spooneybarger, to get Mike Hampton and some cash to help pay for his absurd contract. The 8 year deal brought Hampton to Denver in 2001 and two years later, the Rockies were ready to do whatever it took to get rid of his 5.75 ERA and ridiculous 55 homers allowed, or 45 more than he hit as a Rockie. The Braves took a chance they could reform the former All-Star, but over six years, Hampton would throw just a shade over 500 innings and when he was on the mound, he wasn't all that good. However, in the winter of 2002, many were ready to hand the Executive of the Year award to Schuerholz for grabbing a guy overrated by high win totals and Astrodome-assisted ERAs.

With Hampton in the fold, bringing back Glavine was less of a need, but what about Maddux? Well, the Braves quickly grew tired of Scott Boras's antics and closed the door on a return trip with Maddux, too. Well, except for offering him some pesky arbitration to get some draft choice compensation.

The winter meetings opened December 16th, 2002 with a couple of small moves for Atlanta. They picked up Chris Spurling in the Rule 5 from the Pirates before moving John Foster and Wes Helms to the Brewers for left-hander and buffet cleaner Ray King. The Braves sported a pair of awesome lefties in 2002 in Mike Remlinger and Chris Hammond, the latter of which posted an ERA under 1.00 in over 70 innings. Both received big money deals before the winter meetings even opened. Spurling would be traded to the Tigers after not making the roster.

On the next day, the Braves made headlines when they moved the Australian Moss, along with youngster Merkin Valdez, to the Giants for Russ Ortiz. Moss was considered a poor man's Glavine, but the Braves rightfully were hesitant to rely on someone who walked 98 to just 111 strikeouts. Valdez was a big international free agent when the Braves got him, but he rarely stayed healthy and while he would make it to the majors five times, he started just one game and finished with a 5.57 ERA. Meanwhile, Ortiz was coming off a season where he started two World Series games. He was pretty average and was prone to a lot of walks, but in the new-look rotation, Ortiz was a trusted mid-rotation guy who could throw a lot of innings. He was also getting expensive and would earn over $10 combined in his two seasons in Atlanta.

Not finished, the Braves struck again, this time on Wednesday as they signed Paul Byrd to a two-year contract. Byrd had led the American League in complete games and won 17 games with the Royals, but again, a deeper look exposes some big concerns. It was like the Braves were focusing on guys expected to eat innings and not be terrible. Byrd would miss all of 2003, though, due to injury, opening the door for Horacio Ramirez.

It looked as if the Braves had finished their restructuring project. While Glavine and Maddux's replacements were hardly that exciting, Millwood was still around and expected to anchor a rotation with Ortiz, Hampton, and Byrd to follow. That left the fifth spot open for Marquis and Ramirez to battle.

Then came Thursday, December 19th. Nowadays, ballplayers only have a limited time to accept their arbitration-equivalent, the qualifying offer. Teams can offer it, get an answer fairly soon, and know where they stand. In the wildly inefficient 2002, the Braves had offered Maddux arbitration weeks before and Schuerholz was convinced that there was no way Maddux would accept. After all, he has essentially been replaced (in rotation spot, not in talent) and was looking for a longer deal. However, as no offer materialized, Maddux let the Braves know that he would accept their offer of arbitration and would rejoin the Braves for an eleventh year. It was pretty easy to understand both sides in this. Schuerholz, thinking Maddux was as good as gone, wanted draft pick compensation to improve his minor league system. Maddux, not receiving the kind of offers he expected, probably felt that would change in a year and in the mean time, he would pitch for a likely contender in a park he was successful at.

However, the decision send shock-waves through Atlanta. In need of payroll space to fit Maddux, the options were increasingly miserable. The non-tender deadline was on Saturday and the according to Schuerholz, they were ready to non-tender Millwood to find payroll for Maddux, an increasingly depressing end to Millwood's time in Atlanta. Schuerholz would call every team in baseball, searching for a team with the payroll flexibility and need to take Millwood on so that the Braves could get something - anything - for the Tarheel native. Only one general manager was considering such a move, though. Ed Wade of the Phillies. With no bargaining room, Schuerholz couldn't ask for anything more than the Phillies best offer, 27 year-old Johnny Estrada. Stuck in a corner, Schuerholz took the offer.

The entire 2002 offseason challenged Schuerholz, who looked over-matched for the first time in his career. He has pissed off a "lifer" with a lowball offer while falling into a situation where he lost a still relatively young workhorse in Millwood for pennies on the dollar. He was stuck with Hampton in Glavine's spot and Ortiz in Millwood's. The new year couldn't come quick enough for Schuerholz.

In 2003, the Braves still won 101 games, though their ERA was almost nearly a full run higher. Shane Reynolds was signed a week into the season to give the Braves yet another veteran present in the staff, though he was awful. The bullpen couldn't replace Hammond and Remlinger. However, the offense was tremendous, setting modern franchise records with 907 runs scored and 235 homeruns and leading the Braves back to the playoffs, where they lost to Remlinger's new team, the Cubs.

After Maddux's defection following 2003, the restructured rotation, built mostly over that week at the Winter Meetings, fell apart as well. Ortiz and Byrd left in free agency, leaving Hampton, who would start just 25 more games for the Braves after his first two exceedingly average seasons in Atlanta. Glavine would eventually return, though he was a shell of his pre-Flushing self. The lasting affect of those few days in Orlando back in 2002 was probably to scare off the Braves from offering arbitration to players like J.D. Drew in fear that he would follow Maddux's lead and accept it if the right offer didn't come his way, leaving the Braves to miss out on draft pick compensation. The Braves would continue to churn out division wins and trips to the playoffs, but the Big Three's era was dead and buried.

No matter what the Braves do over the coming days - and if you listen to rumors, they are doing everything - it is doubtful to be quick as hectic as it was in 2002 when each day brought a mixture of bewilderment and intrigue.

No comments:

Post a Comment