John Schuerholz still has a lot to do this winter to mold his 2005 roster. The Braves obviously have to fill holes in the outfield and maybe a reliever or two and a reserve infielder. But just like any great executive, Schuerholz must keep the future of the franchise in mind.
When you look ahead to the 2006 season, it's easy to assume the lineup will have two more rookies, two more players that will be making league minimum. Jeff Francoeur and Andy Marte will help the budget, which has been held down at $82 million for the 2004 and 2005 seasons. It's also obvious that Tim Hudson and Rafael Furcal, two people expected to be significant contributors in 2005, are free agents next winter.
Will the Braves be able to afford them if the payroll is once again around the $82 million dollar mark? Well you would think it might not be so tough. But it will be.
Right now, the Braves have four guaranteed contracts for 2006 (John Smoltz, Mike Hampton, and the Jones boys) totaling $47.5 million. If John Thomson has another solid season, it would be impractical to not pick up his $4.75 million dollar option for 2006. That's pretty cheap for a #4 starter who can win 12-17 games for you. So that pops the total up to $52.25 million.
The Braves will have six players eligible for arbitration next winter (Horacio Ramirez, Danny Kolb, Chris Reitsma, Kevin Gryboski, Johnny Estrada, and Marcus Giles). Just doing some estimation based on additional guesses of what they may earn in 2005, these six could combine for an additional $15.2 million bucks. That pops up the expected total to around $67.45.
There will be two players, Adam LaRoche and Nick Green, who will be up for renewals. Their expected total of $0.775 will pump up the final total to $68.225 million that could be committed for the 2006 season.
So if the payroll remains in the neighborhood of $82 million, that would leave $13.775 million bucks to try to re-sign Tim Hudson (likely to demand between $10-12 million) and Rafael Furcal (likely to demand somewhere near $8 million).
This might explain why Mr. Schuerholz wouldn't mind ridding the Braves of Mike Hampton's contract. If Hampton were traded in a deal including Sammy Sosa, Sosa's contract, which would almost mirror the amount budgeted to Hampton, would be off the books. So that could be an additional $8 million that could be spent on Hudson and Furcal. It would have the proposed expenditures at $60.225 million, which would be enough to sign Hudson for $10-12 million, Furcal for $8 million, and have a million or two left over for a reliever.
Perhaps if the Braves had an unbelievable season at the gate or even won the World Series, which would bring additional revenue, the folks at Time Warner would pump up the budget to closer to $90 million for 2006. It is possible. The Braves could have an even better team in 2005 than they had in 2004, which could mean some exciting baseball for the fans in Atlanta. If a budget increase does not happen, it looks like General Manager John Schuerholz might have to be even more creative next winter to get Hudson and Furcal back in the fold.
Which one would they pick if they had to choose one of the two to re-sign? Well that could depend on a few things, mainly the progress of two of the minor league shortstops. Tony Pena, Jr. is an excellent prospect. He plays great defense, runs well, and has good baseball instincts. However, his plate discipline needs serious work. On some nights, a pitcher can flinch and Pena will swing. He's got the same free-swinging approach as his father did in his big league career. But there is no doubt this kid has serious talent, and if he made significant progress in 2005, he could prove he is ready for an opportunity.
And then there's Luis Hernandez, the shortstop headed for AA Mississippi in 2005. Hernandez is perhaps the best defensive shortstop to EVER wear ANY Braves uniform – major league or minor league. He is simply outstanding in the field, and the Braves have no doubt he could be a Gold Glove shortstop in the major leagues. The question is whether or not he's going to hit enough to be an everyday player in the bigs. He hit .271 with 6 home runs and 45 RBI in the Carolina League in 2004, and that was excellent progress. If Hernandez does that again in AA this coming season, then they may have their answer. They say, "If you can play in AA, you can play in the big leagues." Well for Luis, it might be, "If you can hit in AA, you can hit in the big leagues." Cause everyone knows this fella can catch no matter where he is playing.
If either Pena or Hernandez prove they are ready to take over, then the decision will probably be made to allow Furcal, who arguably is not worth $8 million anyway, to walk away as a free agent. Something tells you that if Hudson thrives even more in Atlanta, he's never going to want to leave – and we're not going to want him to leave.
So as we watch John Schuerholz create another championship caliber roster, keep in mind the finances for 2006. Without a little help from Time Warner, it's going to be even tougher for the master to keep wielding his magic wand.
Bill Shanks can be reached at email@example.com
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