This offseason the Atlanta Braves have swung and missed more times than Andruw Jones in a doubleheader.
The well-documented free agency whiffs already include Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett and Rafael Furcal. Now the team has let John Smoltz, a lifetime Brave and one of the city’s most beloved athletes walk away.
That’s the front-office equivalent of watching a two-strike fastball cruise by belt-high.
The reasons why and the contract minutae that led to this point aren’t what matters. Braves CEO Terry McGuirk defended the team’s deal, but the bottom line is he and general manager Frank Wren didn’t get the deal done.
It would be understandable if Smoltz couldn’t pitch anymore or if signing him prevented the team from going after more valuable long-term assests. If that’s the case, then by all means, say ‘Sayanora Smoltzy. No hard feelings.’ This is a business after all, and that’s a sensible business decision.
But it looks more like a gun-shy general manager that has too often misread the market and hesitated when he should have pulled the trigger.
The Braves are sitting on a reported $40 million to spend on free agents in 2009 and the best pitcher left is Derek Lowe, a second-tier starter who figures to command about $15 million per year.
Just a month ago, Smoltz appeared to be on the fast track to recovery from last year’s shoulder surgery, impressing manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell in mound sessions.
He wasn’t going to be counted on until June, but this is the same pitcher who has already come back from four elbow surgeries, and until 2008 had worked at least 30 games in seven straight seasons. In five starts last year he had an ERA of 2.00, and in 2007 he finished with this line: 14 wins, 11 losses, 3.11 ERA, 205 innings pitched.
He’s pitched all of his major league games in a Braves uniform, winning 210 games and saving 154 for the franchise.
That’s at least enough to earn him a chance to prove he’s got another year in the tank; especially when Atlanta just needed to pony up $2.5 million to match Boston’s offer (the Braves reportedly offered $3 million guaranteed for 2008, the Red Sox put up $5.5 plus incentives).
And when JoJo Reyes (3-11, 5.81 ERA in 2008) and Charlie Morton (4-8, 6.15 ERA) occupy your No. 4 and 5 spots, there’s clearly room in the rotation for a future hall of famer.
So what are the 2009 Braves left with?
Right now the staff includes Javier Vazquez, the team’s "biggest" free agent signing so far this offseason; Jair Jurrjens, who has the potential to one day be an All-Star; and Jorge Campillo, who was OK last season as a 30-year-old rookie.
If that’s the bottom half of the rotation, the Braves could feel good about themselves. But until/unless Wren wrangles a frontline starter, that’s the best they’ve got to work with.
So, letting Smoltz go makes Lowe a must-get, right? He’s at least a reliable innings-eater with postseason experience. But is he a No. 1 starter? Do you want to give a 35-year-old the four guaranteed years it will likely take to sign him?
The next-best pitching option is 32-year-old Japanese star Kenshin Kawakami who pitched just 117 innings last season in a six-man rotation and spent a good chunk of September on the bench with back problems.
Not much to get excited about.
Maybe the best the Braves can do is put their bat on their shoulder, head back to the dugout and grab a seat on the bench while the Phillies and Mets duel for the division again in the 2009.
Maybe next offseason they can connect on some big-time free agents and the minor league studs we’ve heard about will be ready for big-boy baseball. Maybe that’s been the plan all along.
Maybe so, but a one-year deal for Smoltz wouldn’t prevent that.
Now fans are angry, players are frustrated, and Atlanta looks like a National League outpost instead of the destination location it was for a decade plus.
The departure of Smoltz has driven that point home, and McGuirk, Wren & Co. shouldn’t expect to get a free pass after letting him walk way.