Greg Maddux was walking toward the door of the Braves clubhouse Sunday night, readying himself for another offseason. Braves Pitching Coach Leo Mazzone stopped him and said, "Doggie, I sure do hope you come back."
"I hope so too," Maddux said. "I want to come back. You never know what can happen."
After just losing another postseason series, those words provided solace to those who heard the conversation.
The mood in the Atlanta clubhouse was a combination of shock and pure pain. This was the season the Braves offense was going to get the team over the hump, over the stigma of not having all the components to win a World Series. But instead, the offense neglected this team, allowing the Chicago Cubs to appear as the superior team.
Fact is no team who commits four errors in one game or has its normal 3-5 hitters bat a combined .125 for the series deserves to win. The Braves had chances, but simply came up short.
The Chicago Cubs had a lot on their side: karma, tremendous fan support, and most of the entire country pulling for the perennial underdogs. But the bottom line was the Cubs are a very good baseball team. They may even be the best team in the game right now.
But why weren't the Braves good enough to overcome that? Why did the Braves team that overpowered other National League opponants for most of the season go on hiatus in the playoffs?
Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Terrence Moore offered the "lack of heart" theory, which is used frequently when a talented team fails to live up to expectations. In this case, Moore is 100 percent correct. Why didn't any of the Braves stars tear up the clubhouse after Game One? Why did some of the Braves stars have an apathetic, shocked look on their faces when the end came Sunday night?
There is little doubt that stars are paid huge money to produce. But what about the intangibles? Why didn't some of our stars take charge and lead this team past a Cubs team? Other teams had their stars step up against our great pitchers over the years, so why didn't we have someone to convince our players that Wood and Prior were beatable?
Maybe Chipper Jones is not the type, but he sure is the best candidate. Jones won the World Series in his first season as a regular in Atlanta, but has simply been a division winner since then. Yes, Chipper had two home runs on Saturday to extend the series, but when needed on Sunday, he was again just a body on the field.
But he should be something special. Chipper Jones should be a leader; he should be a reason we overcome good teams and win. If not Chipper, then who?
I don't think so. In fact, Robert Fick played his last game as a Braves Saturday night. Yes, he's fiery and was a sparkplug, but that type of play is not accepted in that uniform.
Fick could be one of many who will not be returning. The multi-million dollar question is who will be back? Sources have told BravesCenter.com that the Braves still have not gotten word on what the payroll can be in 2004. Rumors have persisted that the payroll will be lower, but AOL Time Warner has said that for four years, and every year the payroll has been a bit bigger.
There are three players who will have to be addressed first. Greg Maddux does want to come back, but will he accept a "reasonable" contract? What is reasonable? $10 million? The thought of him winning his 300th game in a uniform not sporting a Tomahawk is sickening to everyone. But how important is it to Maddux? If he knows the financial restrictions that could be on the Braves, would he accept something "reasonable" to win that milestone game in his favorite uniform?
Resigning Javy Lopez seemed to be a slim possibility in midsummer. Despite Javy's remarkable season, Johnny Estrada was tearing up AAA and supposedly needing a chance at regular playing time. Now the Braves are questioning Estrada's ability to be a frontline catcher and wondering if it might be worthwhile to offer Lopez a two year contract. He could play catcher 3-4 times a week and then see some action at first base with rookie Adam LaRoche.
Gary Sheffield is a wildcard. There's no doubt he disappointed in the playoffs for the second straight season, but could his production be replaced. The presence of Sheffield was a huge difference in the Atlanta lineup, and no one is ready to step up and assume his role. But Sheffield's career postseason average is .238, and he needs to do more than that to earn his big money.
So should the Braves rebuild or reload? Don't be surprised either way. Time Warner could decide to keep the payroll around $100 million so that TBS won't suffer any ratings decline. But if the decision is to rebuild, there are several replacements ready to step in. Adam LaRoche and Johnny Estrada could take over for Fick and Lopez. If Greg Maddux leaves, several minor leaguers could battle for the rotation spot.
There are several members of the Braves organization that would like to give Adam Wainwright and Bubba Nelson a legit chance at the rotation in 2004. Would the Braves place two rookies in the rotation? These two may be that special. Andy Pratt, Jung Bong, and Trey Hodges will also get long looks in March.
The long term prognosis is excellent. The Braves have pitching prospects that will be viable options for the rotation for at least the next five years. Along with LaRoche and Estrada, Andy Marte, Jeff Francoeur, and Brian McCann are serious position player prospects who could form the future of the organization in 3-4 years.
But this offseason will definitely be a fork in the road for the Atlanta Braves. As is now the custom in baseball, money could be the determining factor as to whether the road is paved or a little bumpy.
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