The Atlanta Braves have now gone three years without making the playoffs. Before 1991, that was the norm. But ever since Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz started the unprecedented string of 14 division titles in 15 years, fans have expected to win every year. Never mind the fact that Atlantans can barely sell out their playoff games. In order for the fans to be energized, we need big names and big spending.
Despite their success, it’s hard for fans (including me) to realize how the Braves go about their business. It has been a long time since the Braves have had the energizing move of signing a big-name free agent. In 1991, we signed Terry Pendleton away from the St. Louis Cardinals. Pendleton became a fixture at third base over the next four seasons.
The year he started with the Braves was Pendleton’s best, but more importantly, he helped the Braves go from worst to first in the middle of the season and became a game changer with his gold glove defense and timely hitting. Pendleton would go on to win the MVP award that year and come in second in 1992, only to lose late in the World Series both years.
In 1993, the Braves signed ace pitcher Greg Maddux to a contract. The weird thing about the signing was that Maddux, a Scott Boras client, actually took less money to sign with the Braves than what the Yankees were offering. Every Braves fan knows the rest is history.
While the Braves had won on the homegrown talent of Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and a minor league trade that brought them John Smoltz, that was not enough. Once the Braves signed Maddux, they cemented themselves as the best in the west.
1993 was an epic year for the Braves. It featured one of the closest division races and one of the most absurd runs to the title any team had ever made. The Braves would end up coming from behind to beat Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants 104 games to 103. The team did not do it alone. Around the trade deadline, Schuerholz made a big move by trading three prospects to San Diego for Fred McGriff, the spark Atlanta needed to overtake the Giants.
Sure, the team still has one of the best farm systems around, which has created enough depth to last them the next decade, but the last three years have proved otherwise. Pitching depth is suspect at the least and there is little to no power in the minors in the next one to two seasons.
The Braves have publicly talked about their willingness to go outside of the organization this fall and I think that the fan base will likely wait until the off-season to see what happens. The team will likely have anywhere between $35 to $45 million coming off the books before arbitration. That kind of money will make the Braves huge players in this year’s free agent market.
I am sure the front office already has their eyes on several targets, including C. C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets among pitchers, and Manny Ramirez, Rafael Furcal and Pat Burrell among hitters. The Braves will also try to gain some talent via their usual path of trading for a younger number two or three pitcher like Matt Cain in San Francisco.
2008 was filled with injuries for a team many thought could win the World Series. It started with John Smoltz and Peter Moylan a few weeks into the season and ended with ace Tim Hudson and Tom Glavine later on. Would the Braves have made the playoffs with those guys? It was definitely a likely scenario, but obviously it did not happen, so the team must now look to the future.
One thing fans know for sure is that this will not be a quiet off-season. With the way the Braves performed last year (the Braves won just 72 games this year, their worst performance since 1990) and the opportunity for the new ownership and second year General Manager Frank Wren to shine, the Braves will make a splash on the open market.
Going into the next year, the fan base fully expects the Braves to target pitching first and hitting second. If that happens, the Braves will have a great year.