So what is Braves General Manager John Schuerholz up to? What has the Braves' brass come up with as the offseason plan? The answers to these questions are as unanswerable as "Where is Saddam Hussein?" It's fun to sit around and speculate, but the real answers are unknown.
As someone who is around the team a lot, I wish I could beat on my chest and tell you I have all the answers. But I, like everyone else, do not have the real "inside scoop." John Schuerholz is very secretive, and rightfully so. Why should he leak info to the local beat writer or an announcer? Some GM's (Jim Bowden comes to mind) do it, but what purpose does it serve?
But it does not limit me from being apart of the large group that speculates on what will happen. There are more questions this winter than in many years. But wait. We said that last winter. And who in the world would have predicted that we would have let Tom Glavine go to the New York Mets, trade Kevin Millwood to the Philadelphia Phillies for a minor league catcher, trade Damian Moss for Russ Ortiz, and sign Paul Byrd?
So now we're poised to guess on the coming months. It's kinda fun, but foolish. Predicting what will happen is not a safe bet, as last winter proved. But let's give it a whirl. Remember, it's just one man's opinion. Don't mock me if nothing I write comes true.
The first questions to be answered are about our free agents. I believe we will offer deals to Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla, and Gary Sheffield. The question, of course, is whether or not those deals will be in the ballpark to get those guys even interested. Let's analyze all four of the big free agents.
Maddux is a big question mark. There are not many in the Braves organization who do not want him back. The thought of Maddux winning his 300th game in another uniform is almost sickening. Since it is assumed 2004 might be a transition year anyway, what's the big harm in bringing Maddux back for one last hurrah? We assume that a year from now Adam Wainwright and Bubba Nelson will be ready. But that's next winter. Sure, they might be ready for 2004, but 2005 may be more realistic. So having Maddux back for one more season might be prudent.
But of course we have to wonder how much money Maddux will want to come back? He has made almost $75 million dollars since he signed with the Braves in the winter of 1992. Despite his 16 wins in 2003, there is no way the Braves (nor any other team for that matter) will offer him a raise of his $14.75 million dollar contract. Will he accept a one year, $9 million dollar offer to pitch one more season in Atlanta? Only Greg can answer that. But if pitching in an Atlanta uniform is important to him, particularly for his historic victory that is inevitable, then he should take a "discounted" contract in the $8-$9 million dollar range.
A year ago Maddux's agent, Scott Boras, believed he would get his client a 4 or 5 year deal. He learned how hard and unrealistic that really was as no team made such an offer. But now, with Maddux being a year older at 38, what would make Boras believe he would get even a three-year contract? Even if someone offered him a two-year deal, what could the money be for? Would a team offer him $20 million for two years? Doubt it.
Maddux's best bet is to accept a Braves offer that might be in the $8-$9 million dollar range. Then after winning his 300th game in the uniform he'll have in the Hall of Fame, he can go pitch closer to home in either San Diego, Arizona, or Los Angeles. Who knows? He may even think about ending it at the age of 39 after his final season of Atlanta. But what would be his purpose of going to a team for a few extra million (if it's even offered) and pass up the chance to win his 300th in an Atlanta uniform.
Maybe it doesn't matter to him. But I think it does. We reported that on the night the Braves were eliminated, Maddux told Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone that he wanted to come back. If that's true (why would he lie to Leo?), would he let money stand in the way of that desire? I doubt it.
So while everyone is assuming Maddux is history, keep all these factors in mind. I do believe that there is better than a 50/50 chance he signs with Atlanta for one more season. He knows if he returns, the Braves will once again have a great shot at going to the playoffs.
However, out of the top four free agents, Javy Lopez is the one I believe has the best chance at coming back. The Braves do have a potential replacement ready in Johnny Estrada. But is it smart to allow a powerful bat like Lopez just walk away? Of course, there are many questions when wondering about Javy's potential return.
Can Lopez put up respectable numbers after his historic season? It's almost unreasonable to even expect Lopez to come close to his 2003 production.
Can Lopez produce enough to warrant a contract that will most likely exceed the $7 million he made in 2003.
Can Lopez split time at first base with rookie Adam LaRoche?
The Braves may think the answer to the first two questions is no. But I believe the Braves think Lopez can still be a productive major league catcher. If he hit in the .280 range or above, hit 25 or more home runs, and drove in around 80 (a respectable season for any catcher and more realistic to expect compared to what he did in 2003), he may be worth the money.
It looks certain that Adam LaRoche will be Atlanta's starting first baseman in 2004. The Braves have always preferred to break in most rookies slowly, usually splitting their time with a more veteran player. With Javy saying he wants to play a little first base in the future, it's a perfect opportunity. Let him catch when there is a right handed pitcher going for the opposing team (but no more than 3 times a week) and then play first base when there is a lefty going against us (allowing LaRoche to play mainly against righties).
Javy Lopez will go down as the best catcher in Atlanta Braves history. He has been the starter for ten years, and you know how unusual it is for a team to have a starting catcher for that long in this era of baseball. It just doesn't happen. Javy didn't want to leave two years ago, and he doesn't want to leave now.
Will there be a team that will offer Javy a huge deal based on his 2003 numbers? There are a few possibilities. Baltimore has a ton of money to spend and could be a favorite. If Grady Little gets that job, he'll push for Lopez, whom he managed in Richmond. The Cubs may want Lopez to go and lead that pitching staff. It would be nice for them to have a veteran catcher who has had playoff experience.
But will Lopez get a contract in the range of $10 million a season? An American League team might be tempted, thinking Lopez could be a Designated Hitter for a few years after he can no longer catch.
As for Atlanta, the decision may also be based on what they think about Johnny Estrada. There's no doubt Estrada can hit (not as well as Lopez did however), but what about leading a pitching staff. Can he lead a pitching staff that (with or without Maddux) may be in transition? There are mixed reports on his play calling ability. If there is any doubt about Estrada's potential ability to be a regular starting catcher, the Braves may be forced to talk more seriously with Lopez.
I believe Lopez will re-sign with Atlanta for a two-year contract in the $17-$18 million dollar neighborhood. Then he will play a little first, splitting time with LaRoche. This will allow Estrada to get acclimated into the Braves system. It will also put us a couple of years closer to when Brian McCann will be ready. McCann will be in Myrtle Beach in 2004, but is still about 3-4 years away.
If Lopez signs elsewhere, then the Braves will have to go out and get a veteran backup catcher. Brad Ausmus is a great candidate, but talk has him going back to the Padres. If Montreal does not tender a contract to Michael Barrett (an Atlanta area native), he could be a possibility for the Braves. John Flaherty and Sandy Alomar, Jr. are other possibilities. Atlanta also might explore bringing back Eddie Perez, but he might be in line for his best contract ever.
Another reason I believe the Braves will re-sign Lopez is that I think we won't re-sign Gary Sheffield. If the rumors are correct about the Yankees throwing big money his way, then forget it. He's going to go to New York. And if he's hell bent on going home to play for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, then he probably will do so. What is a reasonable contract for him? 4 years, $44 million dollars? I can't see the Braves going past that.
So if Sheffield leaves, we'll have to get a productive right fielder. The free agent list is the first place I would look. The candidates include:
Raul Mondesi – He doesn't fit the Braves image even if he could be had at a reasonable price
Jeromy Burnitz – He's a long shot but will probably sign a short-term deal. His left-handed bat could be tempting if he was inexpensive (2 years, $7 million?)
Brian Jordan – Probably burned the bridge with Schuerholz. If not, he could be a serious candidate to come back if his demands were reasonable.
Vladimir Guerrero – Forget about it. Simply too expensive.
Reggie Sanders – Don't laugh. He sure did struggle in 1999 but has proved he's a better player than that. He's averaged 29 HR and 87 RBI in 3 years since he left.
Jose Cruz, Jr. – Not a great defensive right fielder, but could be reasonably priced and would be a decent left handed bat; although low average is a concern
Carl Everett – See Raul Mondesi
Michael Tucker – Only as a last resort; we know what we'd get (12 HR, 60 RBI)
Shannon Stewart – Probably will command more (average of $7 million per season) than the Braves would want to do
Mike Cameron – See Shannon Stewart; Atlanta kid but K's too much
Jose Guillen – Interesting prospect but may get a pretty big contract.
Raul Ibanez – Lefty bat that may be a sleeper
Rondell White – Hit .289 with 22 HR in complete season
I'm going to predict we're going to sign Rondell White. He is from Gray, Georgia, which is about an hour south of Atlanta. Rondell proved last season he can be very effective when healthy, and as you know that is the big question with him. He has been healthy the last two seasons, so maybe he's past all his injury troubles.
White could probably sign a two-year deal in the range of $5 million dollars a season, roughly the same contract he signed with the Yankees two years ago. I think he would be a nice third outfielder to compliment the Jones boys.
Vinny Castilla will probably be offered a one-year contract in the $3 million dollar range. He may not be able to find a better offer. I do not believe he'll accept, however. Some team will give him a two-year contract (possibly Colorado). This will allow Atlanta to give Mark DeRosa a chance to win the third base job in the spring. He will be the primary third baseman until Andy Marte is ready in 2005 or 2006.
DeRosa will also battle Mike Hessman and Wilson Betemit in spring training for playing time. He'll win out, but the other two will make the team as reserve infielders. Hessman can play first, third, and left field and provide power off the bench. Betemit needs to forget about AAA. He's spent two years there and he needs to go to Orlando and win a major league job.
As mentioned earlier, Adam LaRoche will be given the full chance at becoming Atlanta's regular first baseman. He's ready. LaRoche answered every challenge the Braves put in front of him over the past two years. He does not need any more time in the big leagues. LaRoche will be a Mark Grace-type player: consistent hitting, average power, and a tremendous glove at first base.
While Marcus Giles is set at second, the Braves will explore the market for Rafael Furcal. He made $2.2 million in 2003, and is surely in for a raise when he goes to arbitration. The Braves have to make a decision on his long-term future. They may offer him a 3 or 4 year contract, but don't expect the money to be exorbitant. I don't think the Braves will trade Furcal, but don't be shocked if you hear his name thrown around a bit this winter.
I do believe the Braves will bring in a reserve veteran infielder. One possibility is Robin Ventura. If Castilla leaves and DeRosa gets his chance, and if LaRoche is given the majority of playing time, the Braves will need a little veteran presence in the infield. Ventura is a tremendous clubhouse guy and has been on winning teams. Rumor has it that the White Sox may want him back. His regular playing days are probably over, but he would be a great player to add to this emerging youthful infield.
Now back to the pitching staff. If Maddux does in fact re-sign, that will pretty much set the rotation. He'd rejoin Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Horacio Ramirez. The only open spot would be the fifth starter's job. The candidates would include Trey Hodges, Jung Bong, Jason Marquis, Andy Pratt, Adam Wainwright, and Bubba Nelson.
My early favorite to win the 5th job is Trey Hodges IF he is healthy. He battled arm troubles in 2003 and needs a winter of rest. But I am really interested in what he could do in 25-30 starts. I think the Braves are also curious. Marquis will be traded somewhere over the winter; hopefully his value has not fallen so far that we can at least get some type of serviceable player for him.
If Maddux does not re-sign, I firmly believe the Braves will inquire about Javier Vazquez of the Expos. They talked with Montreal before the trading deadline, but as reported here first, the talks died when the Expos demanded Horacio Ramirez in any deal. The price will be steep, and if the Yankees are in fact dangling Alfonso Soriano, we'll lose that race. The Phillies are also going to go after Vazquez. He could be a tremendous young pitcher to build the pitching staff around.
If Maddux leaves and Vazquez goes elsewhere, then the Braves really have to make a decision. This could define whether or not 2004 will truly be a transition year. Do they go out and sign a stopgap starting pitcher (Kirk Reuter?) and wait for Wainwright and Nelson to be ready in 2005? Or do they go ahead and give two young pitchers (Hodges and maybe Pratt?) a shot at the rotation?
I do not believe Kevin Millwood is coming back. I think someone will offer him the contract (or close to it) Scott Boras will want for him. I just don't think Schuerholz would offer a four-year contract with an average salary above $10 million, and that's exactly the type of deal Boras will be looking for.
John Smoltz will remain in the bullpen. Braves doctors do not believe his arm could stand up to over 180 innings in a season. Ray King's option will be picked up. Kevin Gryboski is a question mark. I think he might be let go, and it might depend on whether or not they can do it with a potentially injured player. Jaret Wright and Wil Cunnane will both be offered arbitration. The Braves will hope they can get both signed in the $500k-$800k range each.
The Braves will look for a veteran bullpen arm. My prediction is that they will sign Phillies righthander Terry Adams. The Braves almost signed him a few years ago, and there is still some admiration there. Adams would be a good replacement for Darren Holmes, who gave the Braves two pretty decent seasons.
Former Reds and Yankees lefthander Gabe White is also a great possibility to sign with Atlanta. If for some reason we don't offer Ray King, White would be our number one candidate. But he might be anyway, especially if the Braves plan to give Jung Bong a chance at the rotation. The Braves have always loved Adams and White, and they have their chance now to sign both.
Atlanta will also talk with Eddie Guardardo, Jeff Nelson, Rod Beck, and Mike Williams.
So here's how I think the offseason will shake out:
Re-sign Maddux and Lopez
Lose Sheffield, Fick, Castilla, Bragg, Hernandez, Holmes, Mercker
Sign Free Agents Rondell White, Terry Adams, Gabe White, Robin Ventura
Invite Julio Franco to Spring Training as a non-roster player
Non tender Gryboski
- Did you notice how long it took me to write that Fick won't be back. I should have written it first since that's the only thing I can predict with 100 percent certainty.
Here's my roster going into spring training:
*Rookies Brett Evert and Roman Colon battle for a bullpen job
So we'll see. It's a crapshoot. Predicting what the Braves will do is almost dangerous. Fun, but dangerous.
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