Smoltz's Contract Leaves Little Flexibility

When John Smoltz finished his 57th game of the 2004 season in late September, he guaranteed his roster spot on the 2005 Atlanta Braves. A vesting option kicked in when he hit that mark, giving him a $12 million dollar salary for next season. The contract, making him the highest paid closer in the game, will also limit the Braves in their offseason flexibility.

When John Smoltz finished his 57th game of the 2004 season in late September, he guaranteed his roster spot on the 2005 Atlanta Braves. A vesting option kicked in when he hit that mark, giving him a $12 million dollar salary for next season.

So while it's a good thing that we know the Braves will once again have one of the best closers in the game, it could also be not so good.

The contract, making him the highest paid closer in the game, will also limit the Braves in their offseason flexibility. With Team President Terry McGuirk saying the payroll will remain around $80-$82 million, Smoltz's deal could perhaps force the trade of another high-salaries player if the team is to make any significant changes.

Let's start the analysis by looking at the (8) players coming back next season and their designated salaries: (in millions)

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Chipper Jones 		$13M ($2M more deferred)
Andruw Jones		$13M
John Smoltz		$12M
Mike Hampton	        $8.M
John Thomson		$4.25M (+500K for bonus) 
Eli Marrero		$3M
Tom Martin		$900K
Eddie Perez		$625K
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TOTAL		$54.775
Now let's look at the (5) arbitration eligible players, with their 2004 salaries in parenthesis and projected arbitration figures:

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Rafael Furcal		($3.7M)		$5M
Marcus Giles		($430K)		$2M
Chris Reitsma		($950K)		$1.5M
Mark DeRosa		($725K)		$1M
Kevin Gryboski	        ($377K)	        $750K
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TOTAL					$10.25
Finally, let's list the remaining (7) non-arbitration salaried players (under three years service time), their 2004 salaries, and their projected salaries.
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Juan Cruz		($370K)		$400K
Horacio Ramirez	        ($330K)	        $350K
Johnny Estrada	        ($313K)         $350K
Adam LaRoche	        ($300K)	        $330K
Nick Green		($300K)		$315K
Roman Colon		($300K)		$300K
Wilson Betemit	        ($300K)	        $300K
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TOTAL					$2.345M

SALARIED PLAYERS			$54.775M
ARBITRATION ELIGIBLE			$10.250M
RENEWAL CONTRACTS			$2.345M
TOTAL PROJECTED SALARIES		$67.370M	
So for 20 players, that's a projected payroll figure of $67,370,000. If the payroll is $82 million dollars, that would leave $14,630,000 available for the remaining five roster spots. If Smoltz did not have his large contract, that would have allowed over $26 million for the offseason.

The first question that must be answered is that of J.D. Drew, the free agent right fielder for the Braves who had a tremendous 2004 season. If Drew had any other agent beside Scott Boras, I don't think there would be as much worry. But the fact is Boras is Drew's agent, and we all know what that means. Boras will do whatever he can to get the best deal for his client. That's what he's good at it. But it might be at the Braves expense.

While Drew had a remarkable season, he still has a reputation of being a player who is injury-prone. If he had played 145 games in a row for two or three straight seasons, then he may have more leverage in negotiations. But considering Boras is Drew's agent, it might not matter.

Considering Drew has only had one year of consistency, the Braves will try to use that to keep their offer at a reasonable rate. It's unlikely they'll offer anything more than a three-year deal, with only a possible fourth year based on plate appearances from the first three years of the contract. But of course the issue is the money.

What's fair for a great player who has only shown he can play consistently for one season? Drew was paid $4.2 million in 2004. Boras will likely want a deal in the $10 million dollar range, but he's not going to get that from the Braves. With the possibility of Chipper Jones moving back to the outfield (whether in 2005 or when third base mega prospect Andy Marte is ready) and super prospect outfield Jeff Francoeur on the horizon in the next season or so, Schuerholz must be logical in any offer to Drew.

Would Drew (and Boras) accept a deal for an average of $8 million per season? That may be Schuerholz's limit, and that would also be a little less than half of the projected money available to spend this winter.

The next issue is our free agent pitchers. Russ Ortiz is gone. Don't even worry about him. He'll be in the $6.5-$8 million area, which will be out of the Braves price range. Paul Byrd is an option, and considering he lives in Atlanta and that he only gave the Braves a half a season for the $10 million dollars he made in his contract signed two years ago, he might be willing to come back at a decent rate.

But the first priority will be Jaret Wright, who might win Comeback Player of the Year with his 15 victories. Wright is a hard-throwing right-hander who will only be 29 years old next season. Teams know that he might have finally realized his potential that made him one of the best young pitchers in the game when he started Game Seven of the World Series in 1997. There's already been talk that the Indians, Yankees, Angels, Giants, Rangers, and Padres might be interested in Wright.

But again, like Drew, there are special circumstances. Wright is not like Matt Morris, Matt Clement, Derek Lowe, and even Russ Ortiz, pitchers who have been proven winners over an extended period of time. He's only pitched well for one season, so that might keep his demands down. But teams are always willing to spend, almost foolishly, for free agent pitchers. It would surprise no one if Wright got an offer for between $4-$6 million dollars per season.

The Braves don't have to be that rash. Sure, they'd like Wright back, but not at an unreasonable price. They may be willing to make a two or three-year offer averaging $5 per season, but that may be the limit.

So if Drew came back at $8 million and Wright came back at $5 million, the Braves will have only $1.63 million remaining for three players. It's possible Antonio Alfonseca could come back, but after having a great season, he might want a raise from his $1.35 salary from 2004. So the Braves would pretty much be limited to spend $1.0 million on another veteran reliever (Gabe White? Steve Kline? Billy Koch?) and then room for two rookie players.

That's not much flexibility.

So the options to open up more room are fairly simple: trade one of the higher salaries returning veteran players. Smoltz is a 10/5 player, meaning he has at least ten years in the big leagues and five years with the same team, so he can veto any trade. It would be difficult for the Braves to trade Smoltz even if they wanted to, and there have been no signs that it is a possibility.

Chipper Jones is also a 10/5 player, but with over $60 million left on his contract (including option years in 2007 and 2008, which would vest if he has 450 plate appearances the previous season), he would be difficult to trade as well. The Braves might have to take a high-salaried player back in return, which wouldn't give them much flexibility.

Andruw Jones may be an option. He makes $13 next season and his total contract has three years remaining with $40.5 million. But he will only be 28 years old next season, so some teams may feel Jones is just getting into his prime. However, Jones is extremely valuable to the Braves, particular with his defense. And there is always the possibility that he could become the Carlos Beltran-type player many have expected him to become for several years. The Braves would be taking a gamble by trading him.

Mike Hampton's contract balloons up in 2006, and while the Braves have annuitized the contract at $8 per season, he will still cost $43 million between 2006-2008. No team, even the Yankees, will take a contract that high for a pitcher who has averaged 13.5 wins over the last two years (and averaged only 12 wins over the first four years of his contract). So it's very unlikely the Braves could move Hampton, and again, they seem to be happy with him so it's doubtful they want to anyway.

John Thomson is a very reasonably priced pitcher considering he won 14 games in 2004. He'll be paid only $4.25 million (including half of his signing bonus) next season. That's not bad for a #3 starter, so the Braves might want to hang onto him.

Rafael Furcal is something to think about. "Fookie" is one year away from free agency, so the Braves have got to think of what his value might be in the long-term to the organization. If they feel he might price himself out of their range, then they might want to pursue a deal for him this winter. Furcal could command a very high price, one that might pull in a very decent reliever and an outfielder (which could come in handy if Drew leaves via free agency). But the Braves love Furcal, and the feeling is mutual. Many wonder if his September arrest for DUI and subsequent prison time signals the end of his Braves career. Well it might for most, but Manager Bobby Cox and the players love Furcal. But that might not matter if John Schuerholz feels Furcal could be too high next winter when he becomes a free agent. There are a lot of shortstops available this winter, but not as many when Furcal is available next winter, meaning he could command a high price on the open market.

The one thing that causes this payroll situation to not be a problem is our General Manager. John Schuerholz showed last season he could manipulate the roster effectively and still produce a contender. No matter what happens this winter, all Braves fans should feel confident that he will do that again. Of course, you have to wonder when his luck will run out, but it's better to have someone with his experience on hand to tackle the situation. Expect the Braves to be active so they can build on the 2004 squad that had the second youngest starting lineup (as long as Julio Franco was not in the lineup) in the National League.

But with Smoltz returning, the Braves do not have the flexibility that might have needed to fill in a few important spots. Luckily, the farm system is in place to keep the reinforcements coming no matter how Time Warner limits John Schuerholz's financial flexibility.

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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