Not an easy decision

What would you have done in this difficult decision?

You know, when you use your heart over your head in making a decision it can get you in a lot of trouble.

Maybe that's what Frank Wren was trying to do - avoid making a bad decision. Maybe giving Braves icon John Smoltz all that guaranteed money would have been a mistake. But then again, maybe not.

I, like many of you probably, have gone back and forth on this decision. It once again shows the tremendous responsibility on a general manager to make these tough calls.

The outcry has been tremendous. We had 41 calls on our three-plus hour talk show in Macon on Thursday, and only one person really wanted to talk about the BCS Championship. The topic was Smoltz, and practically all of the callers were incensed with the decision.

Personally I still believe Smoltz was worth the extra three million guaranteed dollars. Even if he threw three games in April and his arm fell off, I'd rather have Smoltz in the Braves clubhouse than somewhere else. The cost of him leaving exceeds the cost of what it would have taken to keep him here.

But this was about more than just the money. Smoltz feels the Braves took him for granted and did not take his potential return serious enough. His rehab went really well. He was a month ahead of schedule. He felt better than ever and threw better than ever in his side sessions.

Yet the Braves cautious approach, which was necessary considering all the times the Braves have had millions of dollars camped out on the disabled list, was a slap in Smoltz's face. He believed they should have been as excited as the Red Sox were about his rapid progress. Problem was, they weren't - at least not enough to guarantee him three million more dollars.

But this relationship between Smoltz and the Braves front office has been frosty for a while. There are many people who are not surprised he chose to leave. You know he didn't want to. He had a divorce two years ago and you know he didn't want to be far away from his kids. And after making around $130 million dollars in his career, it's not like he needed the extra money.

How many times has John Smoltz gone to the mound in extreme pain? Yet he did it, time and time again. He did it because that's the competitor Smoltz is. He went above and beyond the call of duty for the Atlanta Braves, and now when he wanted them to show a little more faith in him, as much as another team, he feels they didn't do enough.

Does he deserve extra special treatment? You bet. He's John Smoltz. This isn't Mike Hampton coming back from one of his numerous injuries. This is John Smoltz.

At first he said he'd be able to come back, simply come back. It was assumed it would be more realistic for him to be a reliever. But then, after he did so well in his throwing sessions, that plan changed. Then Smoltz believed he could actually be a starting pitcher again.

And who should doubt John Smoltz until he proves us wrong. That's the scary part. This is the last guy you want to doubt. Yes, eventually time will run out on him. But he's still the last person you'd want to question when it comes to a comeback.

Remember, he's done it time and time again.

If the Braves had acquired Jake Peavy and A.J. Burnett, and the rotation was fixed, that would be one thing. But they didn't and it's not. The Braves still have a need for an ace. And you tell me, if John Smoltz walks out on the mound is he really going to be somebody's fourth starter? Doubtful. He'll probably be an ace.

If the Braves had spent all of their money and simply were at their budget, that would be one thing. But they haven't. They have as much as $30 million dollars remaining to spend to help the team. Certainly one-sixth of that could have been spent on a gamble on a person like John Smoltz.

His influence on others in the Braves clubhouse will never, ever be replaced. The players on that roster looked up to him like a father-figure. Who better to give advice and share experiences than John Smoltz. Wouldn't it have been nice for Tommy Hanson, Smoltz's potential heir apparent, to learn from the future Hall of Famer?

Smoltz deserved to finish his career in a Braves uniform. This is so similar to the Phil Niekro situation 25 years ago. The then 44-year-old Niekro still felt he could pitch. The Braves were skeptical and decided to move on. They believed Ken Dayley, a young promising left-hander, would be better than Niekro in 1984.

Instead, Dayley flopped as a starter and was traded to St. Louis in June of 1984. Niekro would go on to win 50 more games after he left Atlanta, while the Braves would struggle in the rotation for years to come.

Let's hope that same outcome doesn't happen this time around.

The Braves are just tired of relying on injured pitchers. You can't blame them for that. They got burned last year. They already have their ace, Tim Hudson, out for most of this season. That's why they didn't bring in a Brad Penny-type, someone coming off an injury.

You may wonder why they were willing to give all that money to A.J. Burnett, a pitcher who has had injury trouble in the past. Well, Burnett has actually stayed healthy in the last few years. In an offseason where the number of potential aces was pretty low, the 32-year-old Burnett was worth the risk.

But the Braves didn't want to get burned again. They want healthy pitchers in the rotation. They want innings eaters, evidenced by the acquisition of Javier Vazquez (averaged 200-plus innings in the last nine years) and the pursuit of Derek Lowe (averaged 200-plus innings for the last seven seasons). They want younger pitchers, like Hanson and Jo Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton.

Smoltz and Tom Glavine were going to be insurance policies. The Braves hoped they could make some contribution at some point in the season. They still hold out hope for Glavine. If he does return he'll be a backup option. If he proves he can still pitch and pitch effectively, they'll make room for him.

In the Braves' minds, the financial gamble did not meet the potential reward with John Smoltz. But how much of a financial reward would they have received at the box office if Smoltz returned? Wouldn't more people come out to see Smoltz start a game in June against the Red Sox compared to Reyes or Morton? Wouldn't that be worth paying him the money?

Maybe it is time to move on. Maybe it is time to have the new era of Braves pitching start. If that's what the Braves wanted, they probably should have stayed away from Smoltz and Glavine all along and simply broken the strings. But they were the ones that said they wanted both pitchers back if they could be healthy.

The Red Sox simply wanted Smoltz more. They showed him that, not only by offering the money, but by simply showing Smoltz the respect he believes a pitcher that has accomplished so much deserves.

While our hearts are broken at the thought of Smoltz wearing a Red Sox uniform, the Braves went with their head instead of their heart. Let's hope they've made the right decision.


Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show, The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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