Any one of these moves by themselves is worthy of a few hundred words, a few thousand in some cases. General Manager John Schuerholtz faced what promised to be the toughest off-season of his career. He began the earliest stages of that off-season with a move either incredibly daring or incredibly stupid. The beginning ended on a note of infinite sadness.
The Mike Hampton Trade: Hampton's travails at Planet Coors are as well-documented as any of Ulysses' burdens; his 74/91 K/BB ration sums up the experience rather well. In making the deal, Schuerholtz clearly hopes to have acquired the Mike Hampton of 1999 and 2000. The problem with the thought process is that it assumes Hampton was the ace his ERAs in those two years would indicate that he was. What the raw ERAs fail to show is the extreme pitcher's parks Hampton resided in during the 99/00 campaigns. His aggregate road ERA (4.16) during those years isn't entirely a fair indicator of how a good a pitcher Hampton was; it is unduly influenced by a god-awful 2000 season away from Shea Stadium, and considering his solid numbers away from the much more extreme Astrodome, that might be a fluke. An ERA around 3.5-3.7 is probably the most realistic absolute upside for Hampton in a Braves uniform. And for Atlanta, it is questionable that he'll ever really reach that absolute ceiling. What the entire trade boils down to is that the Braves traded a crucial member of a decimated bullpen (more on that later), and of many future bullpens, for less than 50/50 odds that they'll receive an excellent pitcher.
Spooneybarger's solid ERA last year was somewhat the result of luck; his WHIP was pedestrian, and his 33/26 K/BB ratio just scream luck. Still, the only apt adjective to describe Spooneybarger's stuff is "nasty", which is rather ironic, as that's also the best adjective to describe Hampton's numbers in 2002. It's just a difference in tone of voice. This deal will, I suspect, look solid for the Braves in 2003-2005, when they're paying Hampton practically nothing. If he rebounds to the above mentioned upside, it will look like an absolute steal. However, even if he does re-bound to a solid pitcher, there's almost no chance of him earning the money the Braves will be paying him in the final 3 years of his contract. Schuerholtz clearly knew he would struggle to re-sign Tom Glavine, and understandably made a move to fill the gaping hole that would be left by Glavine's departure. In this case, however, it would have been better for Schuerholtz to have gone after a cheaper option, an Ismael Valdes for example, who will likely put up similar numbers to Hampton. It's a daring move, and a creative one, but it's hard to see how the potential rewards, unlikely as they are, outweigh the risks here.
Tom Glavine: A Met: Seeing Tom Glavine wearing the orange and blue of the Mets...well, it does feel like someone stuck a knife into your back and twisted, doesn't it? It's especially frustrating considering that the entire contractual negotiating process between the Braves and Gregg Cliffton is shrouded in mystery and steeped in BS. John Schuerholtz insists that he offered Glavine a 3 year contract, and that seems to be the general consensus. The money question is still so controversial that going over in this space what the Braves offered/did not offer seems a little pointless. And the Glavine retrospectives have been done to death, both on this site and in other media, so I'll avoid waxing nostalgic about 1991, "Poison" Avery, and Francisco Cabrera. What does need to be said is that, no matter how much this stings (and oh boy does it sting), allowing Tom Glavine to sign a 3-year, $35 million dollar contract with the New York Mets might just have been one of the more intelligent moves John Schuerholtz will make in the off season. Rob Neyer over at espn.com did some research into pitchers roughly the caliber of Tom Glavine. What it says, in essence, is that after 3 seasons, there's a better chance of this column appearing in the New York Times then there is of Glavine being worth the nearly $12 million he's due to make. And even if we accept the premise that Glavine would have accepted less to stay with Atlanta over those three years, let's say 9 million, there's also very little chance he would be worth that. No, the Braves original offer of a 2-year contract with a vesting option for the 3rd year was the most intelligent deal offered by any of the three clubs bidding for Glavine's services. Ron Shandler (one of the more accurate forecasters) in his Baseball Forecaster 2003 predicts Glavine to be a 14-10, 3.92 ERA pitcher in 2003, based on Glavine's poor K/BB ratio, his out-performing the DIPS system (which, it should be noted, Glavine has a knack for out-performing), and most of all, a mediocre second half, which featured not only an elevated ERA, but elevated walk totals, homerun allowed rates, and hits allowed. The Braves, as noted above, replaced Glavine's rotation spot with Mike Hampton. Glavine will likely pitch slightly better than Hampton is 2003, as Hampton tries to re-gain his old form, but not 10 million dollars better. Painful as this transaction was, John Schuerholtz is to be commended for sticking to his guns and not allowing Glavine to use sentimentality to hold the Braves hostage.
Remlinger, Hammond, Holmes: The Remlinger, Hammond, and Holmes' transactions deserve to be grouped together, as their moves, combined with the departure of Spooneybarger, paint a fascinating picture of the Braves bullpen. When future scribes put down on parchment the stories of the Braves in the 1990s, the tales of the bullpens will be filled with names like Alejandro Pena, Kerry Ligtenberg, Rudy Seanez, Darren Holmes, Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Russ Springer, and pitchers of their ilk. One of the facets of the game that Schuerholtz seems to understand with crystal clarity is the basic interchangeability of solid bullpen arms. Any general manager with a half-way decent scouting team and a little imagination can, by thrashing the bushes and looking at the numbers in the right way, find arms, arms who can put up good numbers, for their bullpens. And at dirt cheap prices. Remlinger himself illustrates this vividly. He was a throw-in for the Bret Boone trade, a lefty with a great arm who struck people out but couldn't get them out on a consistent basis. Remlinger was an afterthought. And eventually, the afterthought grew into the best set-up man in the National League. Chris Hammond? Darren "13.03 ERA in 2000" Holmes? This was who populated the Braves bullpen in 2002, them and John Smoltz, the only reliever John Schuerholz has ever really given into and paid huge money to. Remlinger is 36 years old. The Cubs gave him a 3 year major league contract, one paying $3.5 million. Hammond is the same age. The Yankees gave him 2 years, $5 million dollars. The only reasonable signing of the bunch was Holmes, who re-paid the Braves for the shot they gave him by agreeing to a low-risk contract that can do the Braves no real harm in 2003. Is Holmes likely to have an ERA below 2 again? No, but his microscopic WHIP and excellent K/BB ratio indicate he'll solid once more, and at the low low price of $700,000. Meanwhile, the Cubs will pay more than 3 times that amount for similarly solid work from Remlinger, and the Yankees will be paying 2 times the amount for similar work from Hammond. Schuerholz handled this as masterfully as he possibly could, refusing to overpay for talent which he knows he can find on the cheap. You have to look deeper to find a real negative to these moves, and even then it's something of a mixed curse. By not re-signing Hammond or Remlinger, the Braves are in a position where they must feel very uncomfortable about non-tendering Ligtenberg, who's due for a raise to about $2 million in 2003, as was originally thought they'd do. The Braves are short of reliable arms right now, and while Schuerholtz will try and find more Ligtenberg's and Kevin Gryboksi's, Bobby Cox will be reluctant to cut loose the side-burned righty, who posted his 4th consecutive solid season in 2002. For the Braves, that's $2 million unavailable to perhaps mend a broken offense.
2003 Arbitration Offerings: The only real player of note in the list of those not offered arbitration is Chris Hammond, whom the Yankees signed about 30 seconds after the Braves failed to offer arbitration to Hammond. It wasn't a huge loss, as Hammond was classified as a Type B free agent, and as such not bringing in a 1st round draft choice. That said, in a draft class ten feet deep in talent, every choice is key, and it's legitimate to wonder why the Braves wouldn't want the Yankees pick in the second round. There was no "danger" of Hammond accepting arbitration, and even if he did, the worst case scenario had the Braves keeping Hammond for 2003 at an expensive, but not ridiculous, price.
The list of those offered arbitration is interesting, but as of right now, there's not a lot to be said about any of them. Schuerholz made a smart decision offering Maddux arbitration, but it wasn't one that should have invoked a lot of deep thought on his part. Scott Boras' claims aside, a Greg Maddux arbitration case will likely not "blow up" the Braves payroll, and that's assuming Maddux even accepts arbitration. That's not entirely likely, as Boras has probably noted that this is probably Maddux's last chance at an excellent long-term deal. The market for his services is surprisingly weak now, and next season, with a free agent class substantially stronger, and Maddux a year older, he's not likely to get better offers, no matter how well he pitches in 2002. The Braves are guaranteed to get at least a first rounder and a sandwich pick out of this deal, and at best they'll get another 3 years or so of pitching from one of the greatest of all time.
Of the remainder offered arbitration, the only one likely to come back and haunt the Braves is Darren Bragg, who'll likely find the market for old 4th outfielders with below average power fairly dry in this depressed market. The Keith Lockhart offer is, I'm sure, exasperating to most Braves fans, and in that it probably puts another obstacle in front of Marcus Giles or Mark DeRosa, it really is. That said, I'm inclined to look on it as a great Cosmic balancing of the scales, the Universes' way of making up to Lockhart for the over 2,000 at-bats he accumulated in the Reds' farm system in the early 90s. Routinely posting numbers that would have made him a solid starter on a bunch of major league teams, Lockhart was stuck behind…well, he was stuck behind the early 90s versions of Keith Lockhart.
Transaction Analysis: 12/20
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