Giving Mike Venafro a guaranteed major league contract does violate an abstract sabrmetric principle, and one that is often true enough. Namely, that an organization can, by scouring the minor and independent leagues, find dozens of Mike Venafros bouncing around, happily willing to RSVP a team's spring training invitation. So there is no need for a team to guarantee the real Venafro any money before spring training.
Of course, that principle is, as I said, rather abstract. I can't literally show you the Magic Mike Venafro Tree, from which dozens of mediocre middle relievers spring forth to astound the world with their amazing ability to reach new and exciting pinnacles of Average. What I can show you is the $1 million dollar contract Kerry Ligtenberg signed to pitch for the Orioles. Was it worth saving $500,000 to sign the far inferior Venafro?
The answer to that is entirely dependent on which Mike Venafro shows up for the Braves in 2003. The Mike Venafro who made a rather convincing Poor Man's Mike Meyers in 1999-2000? Or the Venafro who pitched himself into the role of a throw-in to the Carlos Pena trade in the winter of 2001 and pitched himself into a demotion to AAA Sacramento in 2002? In the best of times, lefties were pretty helpless against Venafro, though righties bashed him to no end. In the worst of times, his numbers against lefties were actually pretty mediocre, and righties continued to own him. Or use him as a timeshare.
In other words, no, he's not worth $500,000 less than Ligtenberg. Look, Venafro isn't a bad risk, really. The guaranteed aspect of the deal is hard to swallow, but $500,000 is less than either Julio Franco or Keith Lockhart made last year. Cutting Venafro loose if he has a bad April won't be a hard contract to swallow.
Still, the absolute upside here is, as I mentioned, another Mike Meyers, and I'm not a big fan of carrying pitchers who can only expect to routinely retire hitters who stand on the port side of the plate. Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone don't have a history of carrying left-handed specialists, and Cox definitely prefers to throw pitchers on the mound who aren't strictly specialists. And it's hard to see where Venafro fits into the Braves needs, as Ray King fills the role of "semi" lefty specialist who can also retire the occasional right-handed hitter.
I never figured I'd complain about the loss of Steve Torrealba. But if I had to choose between Henry Blanco at $1.3 million and Torrealba at the league minimum, I'd non-tender Henry Blanco faster than you can say "Stan Kasten." Is there any doubt that the Braves, if they put forth a modicum of effort, could find a backup catcher who can actually be expected to hit over .200, and at a drastically reduced price? Adam Melhuse? Couldn't they have claimed Ramon Castro when the Marlins managed to sneak him through waivers in 2001? Bobby Estallela? And as easy as it is to find a catcher who can at least hit .210, it's infinitely easier to find Henry Blanco Mark II. To put this contract in perspective, Blanco is making $300,000 more than Ligtenberg is due to make in 2003. All right kids, quiz time: Who's the more valuable player: Ligtenberg or Blanco? Would all those who failed to give Kerry's name please stay after class to clap erasers?
Not much clever to say about Furcal's new contract. Good to see a kid who grew up in abject poverty in the Dominican hit it big in the majors. For the Braves, it's hard to see how Furcal is actually worth $2.2 million, but in the arbitration process, what a player is worth is rather irrelevant. We can look at Furcal's .321 OBP and the last two years and point out that Furcal is slowly degenerating into Tony Womack/Cristian Guzman territory. Arbitrators however are notoriously myopic. They see Furcal, they see his speed, they say "Great lead-off guy!" It's probably best for the Braves that they didn't allow this to go to arbitration.
Before I sign off, a quick house-cleaning note: I've received a few emails from BravesCenter readers, the vast majority of them quite complimentary, and all of them very intelligent in nature. I'm happy to read any emails you send me, and I respond to all of them. I encourage you to email me as much as possible, if for no other reason than your mail gives me an excellent fallback option for this column if there is a silent week in the Braves front office.
Andrew Bare is a student at the University of Florida. He spends most of his time worrying about the Atlanta Braves. He welcomes your comments at AndrewBare29@hotmail.com.