ATLANTA — What more can go wrong for the Braves?
The most stunning blow yet in a miserable offseason was dished out Thursday when John Smoltz reached a preliminary agreement with the Boston Red Sox after spending his entire big league career in Atlanta.
Smoltz agreed to a $5.5 million, one-year deal with the Red Sox, who gave him a chance to earn another $5 million in bonuses largely based on how much time he spends on the active roster. The Braves were unwilling to provide that sort of financial commitment to a 41-year-old pitcher coming off major shoulder surgery.
Just like that, one of the faces of the franchise is gone.
With his intimidating stare and wicked slider, Smoltz was a major cog in a rotation that once included Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux — a trio of Cy Young Award winners and likely Hall of Famers who teamed up to help the Braves win 14 straight division titles, an unmatched postseason run that included a World Series championship in 1995.
But Atlanta has fallen on hard times. The streak of playoff appearance ended in 2006, and the Braves sank all the way to fourth in the NL East last season with a 72-90 record, 20 games behind division-winning Philadelphia and their worst mark since 1990.
Glavine is the only pitcher left from the Big Three, but he’s also coming off season-ending surgery and who knows if he’ll throw another pitch? The 42-year-old left-hander has said he’ll either re-sign with the Braves or retire.
General manager Frank Wren set his sights high at the start of the offseason, but he’s missed the bull’s-eye on every target.
A proposed trade for San Diego ace Jake Peavy fell through. Free-agent pitcher A.J. Burnett spurned the Braves to sign with the free-spending New York Yankees. Wren thought he had a deal with former Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal, but he wound up re-signing with the Dodgers amid allegations that his agent merely used Atlanta’s offer as leverage to get a better deal in Los Angeles.
In their only major move since the end of the season, the Braves acquired right-hander Javier Vazquez from the White Sox for a package of minor leaguers. But he struggled down the stretch last year, finishing 12-16 with a 4.67 ERA, and Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen complained that he wasn’t a big-game pitcher.
As Smoltz finalized his deal with the Red Sox, the Braves turned their attention to free-agent pitcher Derek Lowe, who met with the team on Thursday at Turner Field. He went 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA in 34 starts for the Dodgers, but drew little attention from Atlanta until everything else fell through.
The NL East rival Mets also are interested in Lowe, having offered him about $36 million over three years. The way things are going for the Braves, they can hardly feel optimistic about landing the latest player on their radar screen.
Wren was tied up in meetings with Lowe and could not immediately be reached for comment. But the second-year GM, who took over for John Schuerholz, will surely come under fire for failing to lure Smoltz back for his 22nd season with the Braves.
Smoltz released a statement through his agent saying he felt compelled to look elsewhere after hearing Atlanta’s proposal, for less than half the guaranteed money offered by the Red Sox, with incentives that would have been much tougher to earn.
"I was going to withhold comment until the announcement of my signing with a new team, but I now feel the need to clear up any misconceptions and inaccuracies about the contract negotiations between myself and the Atlanta Braves," Smoltz said. "There were large discrepancies between the offer from the Braves and offers from other teams."
Longtime teammate Chipper Jones was clearly upset about what he perceived as Atlanta’s halfhearted attempt to keep the only pitcher in baseball history with 200 wins and 150 saves.
"I am disappointed. Very disappointed. Deflated. Frustrated," the third baseman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It’s been a very long offseason, not a lot of stuff to really get excited about, and then to have this it just is the icing on the cake for me."
Smoltz stated numerous times that he wanted to spent his entire career in Atlanta. Instead, he’s off to a team that lost to Tampa Bay in the AL championship series and envisions the winningest pitcher in postseason history eventually joining a rotation that already includes Daisuke Matsuzaka (18-3), Jon Lester (16-6) and Josh Beckett (12-10).
"I have always loved the city of Atlanta, and it will always be my home," Smoltz said. "I will cherish my 21 years with (manager) Bobby Cox and all my Braves’ teammates. I continue to wish the Atlanta Braves nothing but success in the future."
There’s nowhere to go but up after this offseason.