We knew it was coming, but the Atlanta Braves' long run is finally over. ESPN reports that they are slashing salary and getting rid of several of their big stars, to replace them mostly with kids up from the farm.
As expected, the Braves didn't offer arbitration to the four-time Cy Young Award winner by the midnight Sunday deadline, essentially ending his career in Atlanta.The Braves should still be a decent team next year, assuming they don't cut Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, or any other significant players. Javy Lopez and Vinnie Castilla both had career years, which they're unlikely to repeat. The Braves have an outstanding young catcher in Richmond in Johnny Estrada to replace Lopez.
The Braves also cut ties with Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez, two sluggers whose salary demands were beyond the range of the payroll-cutting team.
Julio Franco was the only Atlanta free agent to be offered arbitration. The Braves would like to bring back the 45-year-old first baseman to platoon with rookie Adam LaRoche next season.
Players not offered arbitration can't re-sign with their old clubs until May 1. Maddux went 16-11 with a 3.96 ERA last season -- his 16th straight year with at least 15 wins -- but likely will have to take a significant pay cut in 2004.
Last season, Maddux made $14.75 million on a one-year deal with the Braves after accepting arbitration.
The right-hander spent 11 seasons with the Braves, winning the NL Cy Young Award his first three years in Atlanta. He began a streak of four in a row with the Chicago Cubs in 1992.
Scott Boras, Maddux's agent, said Sunday there were no negotiations over the weekend with the Braves, who are expected to cut their payroll by at least $20 million this season.
Even without Maddux, the Braves have a solid start on their 2004 rotation with Russ Ortiz (21-7), Mike Hampton (14-8) and Horacio Ramirez (12-4).
But their offense is taking a major blow without Sheffield (.330, 39 homers, 132 RBIs), Lopez (.328, 43, 109) and third baseman Vinny Castilla (.277, 22, 76), all headed elsewhere.
The Braves also declined arbitration for pitchers Kent Mercker, Darren Holmes, Shane Reynolds and Roberto Hernandez; first basemen Matt Franco; and outfielder Darren Bragg.
General Manager John Schuerholz downplays all the changes.
Atlanta has averaged 10 personnel changes annually during its run.Considering that they've only won a single championship during their twelve year hot streak--compared to two for the upstart Florida Marlins, who have had precisely two good seasons--it should be interesting to see how they do on a low budget and with fewer marqee players.
"Anytime there are more [high-profile players involved] it becomes more challenging, certainly," he said. "But we've never viewed it as daunting, or something that's impossible to deal with. More challenging, yes. Impossible no."
While Schuerholz never discusses finances or players he's pursuing, it's safe to assume the Braves are going to shed more than $40 million in salary through departing free agents and put perhaps $20 million back into next year's payroll.
They've been working with a number of different plans, but are unlikely to offer the kind of multiyear deal with a $12 million-or-higher annual salary that it might take to land a free agent like Vladimir Guerrero or pitcher Andy Pettitte.
The Braves could have rookies at catcher and first base (Adam LaRoche) in 2004; Mark DeRosa, with 14 career home runs, at third base; and an established but relatively modest-priced player in right, such as Minnesota's Jacque Jones.
The Braves nearly pulled off a deal for Montreal ace Javier Vazquez last week, but the Expos traded him to the Yankees. Kevin Millwood could be targeted next, after the Phillies decline to offer him arbitration before tonight's deadline.
"No matter who's on our roster, anyway you want to structure it, we're going gonna have a good team," Schuerholz said.
The Braves payroll will probably rank near the middle of 30 teams, and probably as close to the bottom-rung $30 million payrolls of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Milwaukee Brewers as to the payrolls of the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.Sanity has to intervene at some point, I guess.