Atlanta Braves making the most of a mid-level MLB payroll
Friday, July 2, 2010
ATLANTA -- The question stumped Bobby Cox for a moment: Could the Atlanta Braves' legendary manager remember another offseason -- perhaps one during the franchise's unprecedented run of 14 straight division titles during the 1990s and early 2000s -- when the team hit big on every move it made, the way it seemingly did this past winter?
"Well," Cox finally said, his mind zooming back through the years until it stopped at December 1992, "there was the time we signed [Greg] Maddux at the winter meetings. That worked out pretty good."
Okay, well played, Mr. Cox -- signing a reigning Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer who would go on to win three more Cy Youngs and anchor a perennial playoff rotation for more than a decade will almost always look pretty smart in hindsight.
But the fact remains, that was a different era, with the 1993 Braves coming off two straight World Series appearances and fielding payrolls that consistently ranked in the top two or three in all of baseball.
What we are talking about now, as Cox winds down his 26th and final season as the Braves' manager, is something far different, and perhaps equally impressive.
Now fielding a mid-level payroll -- one that trails their division rivals, the Mets and Phillies, by more than $50 million each -- the Braves are back atop the NL East standings, leading the Mets by two and hoping to send Cox into retirement with his first playoff appearance in five years.
And this time, instead of throwing huge money at a marquee free agent, the Braves have done it with a dozen or so smaller moves -- bargain-basement signings, trades and difficult internal choices -- that, somehow, have led to a nearly 1.000 batting average for the team's front office.
Need some right-handed power on the cheap? Sign veteran first baseman Troy Glaus, who missed almost all of 2009 with injuries, for $1.75 million, and watch him rank near the top of the NL in runs batted in this season.
"Getting a guy like him and seeing him bounce back like he has," General Manager Frank Wren said, "has been the key to our season."
Need late-inning relief? Grab another injury-risk veteran, lefty Billy Wagner, for $7 million, then pick his brain about an ex-Red Sox teammate, right-hander Takashi Saito, and with Wagner's blessing, sign him too.
"I asked Billy, 'What kind of guy is Saito?' " Wren said. "And he said, 'Oh, he's a terrific guy, tremendous guy.' And then he said, 'I don't want to cut my own throat here, but he can close too.' "
Need a versatile, left-handed-hitting utility man? Get noted good-luck-charm Eric Hinske for a mere million bucks. Does it seem like every great team has a guy like Hinske on it? That's because a lot of them have Hinske himself -- he played on three different World Series teams the previous three years (2007 Red Sox, 2008 Rays, 2009 Yankees).
"The teams I've been on have had great players, so it's not my fault," said Hinske, the 2002 AL rookie of the year. "But I think I have lots to offer to a team. I'm good in the clubhouse, and I may not be an all-star but I can help a team win in a lot of different ways."
And there would be other moves, some of which boiled down to simply picking the right internal option:
-- Forced to choose between two second basemen, Kelly Johnson and Martin Prado, the Braves went with the far cheaper Prado, who now leads the NL in hitting and is likely to be an all-star later this month.
-- With limited dollars to spare over the winter, the Braves decided to spend most of them to re-sign veteran pitcher Tim Hudson -- who, like Wagner and Glaus, was coming off a major injury.
"People made a big deal because I was hurt, Wagner was hurt, Hudson was hurt," Glaus said. "But we all came back last year. We obviously didn't have the years we normally do, but we were all healthy at the end of the year. People make it sound like it was a huge long shot, but I don't think it was."
-- Needing to trade a veteran starting pitcher to save money, the Braves turned expendable veteran Javier Vazquez into a switch-hitting, everyday outfielder (Melky Cabrera) plus a top pitching prospect (19-year-old right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, who was 9-3 with a 2.71 ERA in Class A before going on the disabled list Wednesday).
-- Perhaps most famously, the Braves decided to make 20-year-old rookie Jason Heyward their everyday right fielder at the start of the season, instead of waiting until June to save money on future salaries, the way many teams (including the Washington Nationals with phenom Stephen Strasburg) did. Heyward has responded with a big first half that has him on the verge of being elected to the All-Star Game (although a thumb injury will prevent him from playing in it).
"To me, the question wasn't about what it's going to cost in future salary, or the impact it's going to have on your roster six years from now," Wren said of the Heyward decision. "It's -- is this guy a key component to a contending club? And if he is, you're doing the other 24 players, your coaching staff and the community a disservice by not having him on the team. I couldn't justify that."
Beneath the layers of successful roster building lies the Braves' emotional core. Cox has already announced his retirement at the end of the season, and Braves insiders expect veteran third baseman Chipper Jones to do the same in the coming months. Cox and Jones are the last remaining links to the glory years of the last two decades, and together they have 50 years of tenure in the organization.
"It's their team, definitely," Hinske said. "You understand what those guys represent around here, so you try to keep winning for them. The rest of us are just pieces to the puzzle."