Lopez May Be Atlanta's Biggest Decision

Happy Birthday, <B>Javy Lopez</B>. Will the newly turned 33 year-old be back with Atlanta next season? Or will his contract demands send him on to another team? Bill Shanks analyzes the possibilities for 2004.

Happy Birthday Javy

In this era of free agency and teams annually non-tendering contracts to veterans, it is very unusual for a player to spend an entire decade with one team. It is even more unusual for a catcher to spend a decade with an entire team.

Javy Lopez has just finished his tenth season as the Atlanta Braves starting catcher. Seattle's Dan Wilson has also been a starter for one team for that long, spending the last ten seasons with the Mariners. Mike Lieberthal of the Philadelphia Phillies and Jason Kendall of the Pittsburgh Pirates have just completed their eighth seasons with their respective teams. Pudge Rodriquez was with the Texas Rangers for 11 and a half seasons before leaving to join the Florida Marlins last winter.

Lopez turns 33 years old today, and he is facing another offseason of uncertainty. Two years ago, he was also a free agent, but found a rough market after hitting .267 with 17 home runs and driving in 66. Not one team made him an offer, and he decided to come back to Atlanta for two more seasons. The Braves were happy, since they really didn't have an alternative on hand.

But it's possible that Javy's time with the Braves is almost up. He once again is a free agent, and with the Braves facing tough financial decisions, the team may not have the resources to pay for a catcher coming off a career season.

Lopez had a MVP-type season in 2003, hitting .328 with 43 home runs and 109 RBI. It was, pure and simply, one of the best seasons for a catcher in the history of the game. But again, with two more years of catching on his knees, it's questionable as to how many teams will offer him a contract. Can he duplicate the historic season, or even come close?

There are a couple of teams who are rumored to be interested in Lopez. The Baltimore Orioles are ready to spend heavily on the free agent market, and they need a catcher. The Chicago Cubs have also been mentioned as a possibility. Having Lopez lead a young pitching staff would be ideal, particularly since Lopez has extensive postseason experience.

It has been widely assumed that the Atlanta Braves would simply allow Javy Lopez to walk away. They acquired a 27-year old catcher last winter named Johnny Estrada in the debated Kevin Millwood deal. Estrada tore up AAA, hitting .328 with 10 home runs and 66 runs batted in. But overall, Estrada has struggled in his brief stint in the major leagues. Even though he hit .306 for Atlanta in 36 late-season at bats, his career major league batting average stands at .231

Of course, Estrada will be tremendously cheaper than Lopez in 2004. He would be slated to make just a tad over the major league minimum of $300,000, while Lopez is almost certain to get a raise from his 2003 salary of $7,000,000.

The question the Braves must ask is whether or not they can afford to hand their pitching staff, the crown jewel of the organization, to a catcher who has debatable defensive skills. Estrada is pretty good at throwing out potential base runners, but has mixed reviews for his play-calling ability. Especially since the Braves are getting ready for a new era of young pitchers, is it smart to allow a veteran catcher like Lopez to walk away? Wouldn't his experience be valuable in acclimating these young pitchers to the big leagues?

It's hard to imagine Lopez being able to repeat his 2003 production. But what is realistic? What about 25-30 home runs (just above his average over the past ten seasons) and driving in 80-90 runs? Would that, along with the ability to help continue to lead our pitching staff, merit a big contract? But what is a big contract? 2 years at $19 million?

The fear, of course, is giving Lopez a big contract and then having him return to his 2002 production (.233 with 11 home runs). That could cripple a team's structure.

But Lopez is a different person than he was two years ago when he struggled. His commitment to a strength and conditioning program was tremendous, and resulted in his great season. Of course, skeptics will wonder if he did that only to get a big contract. It's a fair question. However, his maturity leads you to believe he will stick to that commitment over the long term.

Lopez also talked late in the season about playing first base in 2004 and beyond. And looking at the Braves situation, this too seems like a perfect fit. Robert Fick will not return in 2004, and the Braves are ready to bring in a rookie first baseman in Adam LaRoche. Atlanta's history with rookie position players is to allow them to ease into a starting role instead of playing in 162 games. If LaRoche, a left-handed batter, gets the majority of playing time against right-handers, why not have Lopez play first when lefties are on the mound. Then Lopez could also catch a couple of times a week, allowing Johnny Estrada to have time to get acclimated with the Atlanta pitching staff.

Javy Lopez is the best catcher to ever wear an Atlanta Braves uniform, and the team needs to bring him back for two more seasons. It may be years before we have a catcher with the longevity and production that Lopez has had over the past decade. His experience will be greatly valuable in helping the Adam Wainwright's and Bubba Nelson's get their feet wet in the big leagues. And with Gary Sheffield almost destined to wear Yankee pinstripes, the Braves need to keep a big bat in the lineup.

Lopez may not ever come close to repeating his 2003 numbers, but his value to this organization is still tremendous. Why not give Javy a nice 33rd birthday present and offer him a two year, $18 million dollar contract.

Bill Shanks hosts a weekly regional television program on the Atlanta Braves and its minor league system. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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