How Much Will Wright Want?

The Braves have five of their own players from 2004 that are now free agents. Perhaps the one the team covets the most for a return in 2005 is right-hander Jaret Wright. BravesCenter's Bill Shanks takes a look at what the Braves may have to shell out to keep Wright in an Atlanta uniform.

He came here with an absurd ERA of 8.74 in August of 2003, and he might leave for a number close to that in millions. Jaret Wright is a free agent, and the Atlanta Braves have to decide if they want to keep him. As with all baseball decisions in this day and age, it will probably come down to money.

When Wright was picked up off the waiver wire, the scrap heap, near the end of the 2003 season, he was a lost soul. He had been banished to the San Diego Padres bullpen, and every team in baseball passed on him before the Braves scooped him up. Low and behold, Wright put on that uniform with the Tomahawk across his chest and you would have thought he was wearing a blue Speedo with an "S" on front along with a red cape.

Whether it was the uniform, or more likely the tutelage from pitching coach Leo Mazzone, Wright was fixed. Mazzone urged Wright to back off his upper-90's fastball – to try instead to get people out by throwing 94 and not always 98. The right-hander had an ERA of 2.00 in his eleven games at the end of 2003, and that convinced the Braves he was worth bringing back.

Then the Braves had a daring idea. They believed Wright, who had struggled with arm injuries and pure ineffectiveness, was ready to move back into a major league rotation. They practically gave him the job as the 5th starter in Spring Training, and Wright took advantage of the opportunity. He won the job and for the first time in five seasons was going to be a regular in a big league rotation.

Back in 1997, Jaret Wright looked like he was a younger version of Roger Clemens. He had a remarkable fastball, effective breaking stuff, and a presence on the mound unparalleled for a 21-year-old. He was so good, real good, and the Indians started him in Game 7 of the World Series against the Marlins. But then injuries derailed his career, sending him to the depths of hanging on to a last bullpen spot for the Padres.

But the Braves rescued Wright. They saved his career. Whatever it was, whoever should get the credit, the fact is that before Wright was a Brave he was nothing. And then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, he was something. By the time June rolled around, Wright was the Braves best starter. He finished with a 15-8 record and an ERA of 3.28, along with 159 strikeouts and 70 walks in 186.1 innings pitched. It was the best season of his career, even better than his rookie year with the Indians seven years ago.

Now Wright is a free agent, and the Braves have to make a decision on him. By all accounts, they want him back. Two other starters from 2004, Russ Ortiz and Paul Byrd, are also free agents. But Wright is the prime target. Why wouldn't they want him back? He did prove that he could be an effective pitcher with outstanding stuff and outstanding stats. But the question is not whether the Braves will want him, but whether he wants the Braves – and for how much?

You would think that Wright should show some loyalty to the team that rescued him off of baseball's Gilligan's Island, but to expect loyalty in baseball would be like expecting John Kerry to go to lunch with President Bush. It's just not likely to happen. But Wright should be loyal; he should show the Braves some appreciation for saving his career, since that's exactly what they were able to do.

But that's when you have to look at Wright's agent and wonder what he'll be telling his client. Wait. That's a given. The agent will tell Wright to get the best deal, with the most money. That's what agents do. It's very rare for players to really take a proactive role anymore in their free agency status; it's more likely the agent will simply try to get the best deal for Wright, no matter what.

Then the Braves have to ask themselves how far they can go with a contract for Wright. He was great last season, no doubt. But he has only done that one time. It's not like he's Russ Ortiz and has averaged 16.5 wins over the past six seasons. Wright has only had one great season in his career, and not to mention that he does have a history of arm problems.

So the Braves have to wonder if offering a three-year contract would be a huge risk. It will probably be their preference to offer Wright a two-year deal in the $10 million dollar range, but probably not much higher. While it's a lot of money, a two-year deal is not that much a gamble compared to that extra third season. If Wright fizzles out in year one, worst-case scenario, then they'd still be on the hook for two more years. But if he were under contract for two seasons, it wouldn't be as long before they'd be off the hook.

However, the market could make all of this irrelevant. There are a number of mid-level pitchers, like Wright, up for grabs this winter. There's a top tier of free agent pitchers, like Pedro Martinez, Carl Pavano, Brad Radke, and perhaps Derek Lowe. But Wright falls into a group of arms that has a lot of similar players: Ortiz, Matt Morris, Eric Milton, Woody Williams, Kris Benson, Kevin Millwood, and Jon Leiber.

If most of the top tier pitchers return to their 2004 teams, it could increase the value for the second tier pitchers. Wright could command a contract that could last three or four years and possibly as much as $6 million per season. The Braves, with only $14-$15 million to spend for the entire winter, may not want to get into that derby, at least not for Wright.

They may prefer, for instance, to spend that sort of money on a pitcher who has a bit better track record. It's no secret that the Braves have long-coveted Mets right-hander Kris Benson. They tried to make a deal with Pittsburgh before the trade deadline to get him, and with the Atlanta resident still unsigned by the Mets, it will only lead to speculation that the Braves will once again make a run for him this winter.

Benson still has questions himself. He too has battled arm troubles, but he's already had shoulder surgery and Tommy John elbow surgery. So the Braves may feel better about his future health that Wright's. They may also believe that if Benson were put in the Braves environment, he could thrive and become the ace pitcher people have predicted he would become since the Pirates took him with the first pick in the country back in 1996.

Again, this all comes down to affordability. If Wright remains reasonable, then the Braves will remain interested. But if his market gets out of control, they'll probably look elsewhere.

Don't expect them to be hurt too much, though. With John Smoltz probably moving back into the rotation, and the possibility of acquiring Kevin Brown on the cheap from the Yankees, the Atlanta rotation might be too crowded anyway. And don't forget about the kids. Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer expect to go to Spring Training next February to battle for a spot in that rotation, and Kyle Davies may pass both of them later in the season. So even if Wright were to leave, the Braves will be ok.

They always are, aren't they?

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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