Tuesday, November 15, 2016

TOT - Braves Say Goodbye to a Colossal Mistake

By Johnmaxmena2 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Transaction of Today...November 15, 1989: The Atlanta Braves release Bruce Sutter.

A mistake.

It is rarely a mistake to add a Hall of Famer, but when you do so like the Braves did after the 1984 season, it can only be described just that - a mistake. Worse, it was the mistake that kept reminding the Braves of their misguided approach to free agency that winter.

It was a mistake that even as the Braves tried to move on from it 27 years ago today, they couldn't completely and every winter since, the Braves continue to pay for their ineptness.

It began in December of 1984. Two years removed from their first division title since 1969 and back-to-back second place finishes under Joe Torre, Braves general manager John Mullen and owner Ted Turner saw an opportunity to make a splash. They fired Torre because Turner felt they were stagnating and brought up Eddie Haas from Triple-A to replace him. And then, on December 7, they signed Sutter.

For the Braves, adding Sutter gave them the flexibility to withstand the pending loss of Donnie Moore along with give them the ability to move reliever Steve Bedrosian to the starting rotation. Meanwhile, in Sutter, they had acquired one of the most dynamic pitchers in baseball. He was coming off a season in which he went to his sixth All-Star Game in nine years in the league, his fourth Rolaids Relief Award, and a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting.

Part of the new breed of relievers who didn't start their careers as starters before being shifted to the pen, Sutter was renowned for his split-fingered fastball and great control. Outside of one bad season - by his standards - in 1983, Sutter had not finished a season with an ERA over 3.20 and had led the Senior Circuit in saves in five of the previous six seasons before becoming a free agent.

St. Louis wanted to keep Sutter, but was not willing to give in to his steep demands. Not only did he want a hefty salary moving forward, but a no-trade clause. The Cards balked, which opened the door for Ted Turner. Never one to shy away from making the news, Turner swooped in with an offer that still defies logic. According to an article written a month after Sutter joined the Braves and penned by Kenneth Reich of the Los Angeles Times, Sutter was due an exorbitant amount of money for a reliever by even today's standards. For starters. he would be paid $750,000 as a player in each of the next six years. That alone was a significant price to pay when the average salary in 1985 was $368,998.

But that's where the deal went into full nutty. After six seasons, Sutter would receive a minimum of $1.12 million for the next 30 years. Sutter, who could have been playing somewhere else in 1992, would still get paid at least $1.12 million that season. 1992 was the first year that the major league average salary scaled over the one million dollar mark, but even with that in the mind, the Braves would be paying Sutter more than the average salary even if he wasn't playing for them. And he wouldn't be, but this contract's nuttiness is still not complete so let's not get back to his playing career just yet.

At the end of the contract, Sutter would receive $9.1 million in "principal." That comes in 2021 - when Sutter 68 years-old and four years after the Braves move into their new ballpark in Cobb County (or the franchise's second park after Sutter's retirement).

The grand total of this contract was $47.2 million. Not for nothing, but that represents just the minimum Sutter would receive because I won't even touch the interest rates which could have increased this contract a lot according to what Reich wrote in 1985. To put it in a different way...the Atlanta Braves paid Gordon Beckham about $130,000 more in 2016 than they paid Sutter. Say what you will about Beckham, but he was still a better use of money.

The saddest part of this whole deal was the monster failure on the field. The move of Bedrosian to the rotation did little to help the Braves and the presence of Sutter did even less for the bullpen. In 1985, fresh off one of his best performances of his career, Sutter struggled with the Launching Pad. A veteran of Wrigley Field and Busch Stadium, Sutter saw balls fly out of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium at a ridiculous high rate of 1.3 per nine innings (13 in total). By August, he was also dealing with shoulder inflammation and with Atlanta going nowhere, he was shut down a month later.

After the '85 season, Sutter underwent shoulder surgery, but it did little to help with his performance. He would pitch in just 16 games during the '86 season and was removed from the closer role early on by the Braves in favor of Gene Garber and Paul Assenmacher. On May 27, Sutter retired two of the three batters he faced in the tenth inning against the Pirates. He would be placed on the DL after the game and miss the remainder of the season. In February of 1987, he underwent yet another shoulder surgery to try to clean up the damage, but would miss all of the '87 season rehabbing from the procedure.

When the 1988 season began, Sutter worked his way back into higher leverage situations. He took over the closer job in May and from the 17th of that month until the 17th of the next month (June), Sutter looked like he might be back in form. In ten games, he pitched 12.2 innings with 10 K's, one walk, and one run allowed. He also saved seven consecutive games. However, getting his ERA into the low 2's would be a short-lived accomplishment. He blew six of his next eight save opportunities and missed half of August with another trip to the DL. He would pitch just seven times after returning, including a save on September 9, 1988 against the Padres. It was his 300th of his career. It would not only be his final save, but also the final game of his career.

He underwent surgery on his knee to end the season and the next spring, he was diagnosed with a severely torn rotator cuff. John Mullen, who was the general manager of the Braves when they signed Sutter in 1984 and had returned as an assistant GM under Bobby Cox, commented on Sutter after he officially retired following a 1989 season completely spent on the DL. "It`s obvious he can`t pitch anymore. He`s not going to try to pitch anymore. It`s just the end of the line...It was just one of those things. His arm just didn`t do what we hoped it would. He certainly gave it his best shot, but one thing led to another concerning his arm problems."

Sutter finished his career with 1042 innings over 661 games, all out of the bullpen. In addition to 300 saves, he had a 2.83 ERA and 2.94 FIP over his dozen years in the majors. Unfortunately, while he spent five years with the Braves, he only appeared in 112 games and didn't look anything like the guy the Braves hoped they were acquiring when they gave Sutter one of the most creative contracts in baseball history.

1 comment:

  1. At least Atlanta did it the right way. They purchased an annuity to pay Sutter, so his payments are being made by an insurance company. They didn't go the route of the Mets and decide to pay him out of general or investment funds because 'their guy' could make them more money.

    Two things I learned about when Bruce Sutter came to Atlanta: the splitter and rotator cuffs.