The Atlanta Braves have two free agents that they will likely address first, outfielder J.D. Drew and right-handed starting pitcher Jaret Wright. Russ Ortiz is probably gone, and Paul Byrd and Antonio Alfonseca are likely fallback options if they can't find anyone better.
But a scenario has popped up that is very intriguing. There was never any secret that right-hander Kevin Brown would not be back with the New York Yankees in 2005. Brown, a Georgia boy, was simply not a "New York kind of guy." Some people can handle New York, and some can't. Brown couldn't.
So now the Yankees are exploring options for Brown to finish the last year of his contract. There are various and conflicting reports as to how much the Yankees will pay of Brown's $15 million dollar contract in 2005. The terms used have included "some," "half," "most," and even "all."
But Kevin Brown has baggage. He has a reputation as a moody player. He's competitive, almost to a fault. His punch of a wall in the Yankees clubhouse late in the season showed how his troubled personality could get in the way of him being a productive pitcher for the Yankees. Plus, there are health concerns. He's had arm problems and back problems throughout his career.
Oh, yea. His age is also a worry. Brown will be 40 years old in the 2005 season.
Even if the Yankees pay "most" or even "all" of Brown's salary, there are not going to be too many teams lining up to trade for him, mostly for the reasons already listed. But add on to that the fact that there are a tremendous number of middle-of-the-rotation starting pitchers on the free agent market this winter, and you've got a market that might be difficult for a 40-year old pitcher, even if he comes at an outrageously low price tag.
That brings us to the Atlanta Braves. General Manager John Schuerholz has said he will once again have to be creative this winter to create another competitive roster for the team. With 60% of his 2004 starting rotation headed to free agency, Schuerholz knows he might have to re-construct his pitching staff.
Again, the first question that must be answered is, "Will Jaret Wright return?" Wright had a horrible career going until the Braves and Leo Mazzone turned it around late in 2003. Then to bounce back in 2004 with a 15-8 record allowed Wright to prove to many people that he might yet live up to the tremendous potential he showed in his rookie season in Cleveland back in 1997. But how much will Wright want? He's only pitched well for one season, but then again he's only 29 years old, one of the younger free agent pitchers on the market this season.
If Wright demands a contract exceeding $5 million dollars, expect the Braves to pass. Other teams may be willing to drive up his contract past that $5 million mark, but the Braves have got to be careful. Do they give a pitcher with only one solid season under his belt a long-term contract for a lot of money, particularly when they have several young pitchers on the horizon who may be ready to take over a rotation spot in 2005 or 2006?
If Wright's price gets too high, Schuerholz will have no choice but to look for additional starting pitchers. Neither Jose Capellan nor Dan Meyer should be counted on to step in right from Opening Day in 2005. They might be ready sometime in 2005, but to think it could be Opening Day might be a bit unrealistic.
So this brings us back to Brown. Why would the Braves go after him? Well, first off, he is a Georgia boy. Brown lives about 75 miles south of Atlanta in Macon, Georgia. He could easily drive back and forth to Turner Field for every home game. Being home, especially at 40 years old and with his kids getting older, will definitely be something that should make Brown happy. If he's happy, hopefully he'll pitch better.
Can Brown still be effective? Well, despite not doing well in the playoffs for the Yankees, Brown actually had an ok season. He was 10-6 with an ERA of 4.09 in 22 starts. Brown allowed the same number of hits (132) as innings pitched, walked only 35, and struck out 83.
So some may say he's getting old. But just two seasons ago in 2003, Brown had an exceptional season for the Dodgers. He had a 14-9 record with an ERA of 2.39. He allowed 27 less hits than the number of innings he pitched (211) and struck out 185, his highest total since 2000.
Here's a guy who had a 2.53 ERA over a six-year period from 1996-2001. Well, to put up an ERA in that neighborhood two years after that, at age 38, gives you reason to wonder if he can pitch well again.
The Yankees seem willing to pay a majority of Brown's $15 million 2005 salary. Again, we're into semantics here, but if the Yankees pay most of his salary and the Braves can get him for $5 million or less, wouldn't they be foolish to not pursue him? What if the Braves can create a package that would entice the Yankees to pay even more than $10 million dollars? The Yankees are desperate to get rid of him, and again, the market even for giving him away may not be there.
So let's say the Braves give the Yankees a couple of players that could actually contribute to their team. There has been talk that the Yankees wouldn't mind a reliever in exchange for Brown. What if the Braves give New York Tom Martin, a lefty reliever who is scheduled to be paid $1.8 million (but the Braves are on the hook for only $900k)? Then why not give them a solid reserve infielder? Mark DeRosa's rehab from his torn ACL is going well, and he is scheduled to be ready sometime in late April or May. How about offering the Yankees DeRosa, who could make close to $1 million if he goes to arbitration this winter?
Ok, so you can tell I'm trying to make the deal even better financially for the Braves. Well, if the Yankees agree to pay $12.5 million of Brown's $15 million dollar deal for 2005, we could even afford to throw in a minor leaguer or two. James Jurries is defensively challenged and is better suited to the American League. So if we offered Martin, DeRosa, and Jurries, and the Yankees offered to pay all but $2.5 million of Brown's salary, the Braves would be nuts not to take the deal.
Oh, and by the way, that would mean we would get Brown for about $700,000, after we give the Yankees DeRosa and Martin.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
How would the Braves rotation be with John Smoltz, almost certain to return to the rotation, and Kevin Brown? Ok, both would be injury risks, but both could be top of the rotation starting pitchers. If Brown comes to Atlanta and stays healthy, he's very capable of winning 13-18 games. If the only thing to gamble on Brown were a roster spot, the Braves would be foolish not to take that chance.
If Brown doesn't fit in, is a problem in the clubhouse, or gets hurt, who cares? Just release him. With the Yankees paying most of his salary, the Braves wouldn't be losing a whole lot. Hopefully, Capellan, Meyer, or Kyle Davies would be ready to step in and take his spot. But chances are Brown will love coming home and have another solid year or two left in him. It's a gamble John Schuerholz should take.
Bill Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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