KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jake Peavy. A.J. Burnett. Rafael Furcal. John Smoltz.
Now, Ken Griffey Jr.
The Atlanta Braves wanted them all. They’ll all be playing elsewhere in 2009.
Griffey was the latest disappointment, deciding Wednesday night that he wanted to return to the Seattle Mariners rather than fulfill a longtime goal of playing in Atlanta.
The Braves seemed to have everything going their way in the negotiations. They had an opening in the outfield, two actually. They had NL batting champ Chipper Jones lobbying Junior on a regular basis. They had the advantage of proximity, since Griffey lives in Orlando and had expressed a desire to remain close to his wife and children. One doesn’t need a map to know that Atlanta is a lot closer to Florida than Seattle.
In the end, none of that prevailed. For whatever reason — loyalty to a former team, anger about media reports Tuesday that said he would sign with Atlanta — Griffey decided to spend the twilight of his career on the opposite coast.
But there was no glossing over the latest snubbing of a team that won 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005, but now looks increasingly isolated from that proud legacy. The Braves have struggled to losing records two of the last three seasons, including last year’s 72-90 mark — their worst since 1990.
Determined to rebuild a rotation that was devastated by injuries, Atlanta set its sights high at the start of the offseason.
San Diego offered up Peavy, its top starter, but the two sides couldn’t agree on a deal because the Braves wouldn’t part with heralded pitching prospect Tommy Hanson. Atlanta offered big money to free agent Burnett, but he took an even larger offer from that bottomless pit known as the New York Yankees.
The Braves thought they had a $30 million deal with shortstop Rafael Furcal, who began his career in Atlanta, but he chose to re-sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Team officials were livid about the late-breaking development, believing they had a firm agreement with Furcal, and vowed to never deal again with any client represented by his agent.
Then came a stunning blow: Smoltz, who had spent his entire 20-year career with the Braves, bolted to the Boston Red Sox, saying they offered a significantly better deal than the Braves. Losing the only player in baseball history with 200 wins and 150 saves led to fierce local criticism of Wren, a second-year GM who replaced the architect of all those division championships, John Schuerholz.
Wren redeemed himself somewhat when, in the space of a few days last month, he signed Derek Lowe to a $60 million, four-year contract and landed the first Japanese player in franchise history, Kenshin Kawakami. They’ll join another newcomer, trade acquisition Javier Vazquez, to bolster the rotation.
But the lineup still has some major holes — especially in the outfield. That’s where Griffey was supposed to come in, even though he’s 39 and clearly past his prime. Last season, Junior batted .249 with 18 homers and 71 RBIs, but even those numbers would have made him Atlanta’s most productive outfielder.
"We think he’s got some playing left in him," Braves manager Bobby Cox said earlier Wednesday. "We’re looking for a stronger bat, and he’s just the guy to supply that."
Wren tried to temper expectations when he spoke to reporters at the first full-squad workout of the spring, pointing out Griffey’s loyalty to the Mariners, a team he played with for 11 seasons.
"He has emotional ties to the Seattle club he came up with originally," Wren said. "I’m sure that’s a strong deciding factor as well."
The Braves had hoped to add another strong-hitting outfielder to their lineup without giving up prospects in a trade. If they stick to that philosophy, the most appealing free agent option left is Garret Anderson, who batted .293 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs for the Los Angeles Angels last season.
Wren said there’s also a chance the Braves will stick with the outfielders they have, even though that’s the same group that produced a major league-low 27 homers in 2008. The only potential newcomer is center field prospect Jordan Schafer, who has no major league experience and served a 50-game suspension last season for using human growth hormone.
Wren said he’s willing to stick with what’s got.
"I think last year was more an aberration than anything else," he said. "I’d be surprised to see that repeat itself, even if we do nothing at all. We’ve said all along that we’d like another bat in our lineup ... but we’d also like to see our young guys. We’re not married to any one way of putting it together."
One thing is for sure: Griffey won’t be part of the mix.