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Smoltz deserved better from Braves
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Even through the anger and frustration and cold-slap realization associated with this winter that it’s suddenly not cool to be a Brave, one could manufacture legitimate excuses.
Maybe a free agent used them. Maybe an agent lied to them. Maybe an opposing general manager made ridiculous trade demands.
But this is different. There is no rationalization for this. John Smoltz, a career Brave, a certain Hall of Famer, the postseason gold standard for this franchise and baseball in general, asked for a reasonable contract. The Braves countered with something just north of cab fare to the airport.
Atlanta just lost John Smoltz and Frank Wren just lost the benefit of the doubt.
The Boston Red Sox are guaranteeing Smoltz $5.5 million. The Braves offered $2.5 million. They might as well have hung up the phone.
Do you know what the $3 million difference amounts to? It’s 3.3 percent of last year’s payroll. It’s $40 million less than they paid Mike Hampton in the last three years. It’s 7,400 hotdogs per home game. (The cheap ones.)
The Braves are now a faceless franchise — because the only remaining face, that of Chipper Jones, is under a paper bag. Jones was livid after speaking with Smoltz late Wednesday night. He hadn’t calmed down much by Thursday.
“With all of the gambles that the Atlanta Braves have taken over the years on players, for a couple of million more dollars, you don’t gamble on John Smoltz when he tells you he’s going to be back?” Jones said. “After everything that’s happened to this organization this winter, the players and the fans need something good to happen. The one silver lining we had was John Smoltz being back in the lineup this year.”
He said some teammates “lost a father figure. I lost a brother. If he’s retiring, that’s one thing. But for him to playing somewhere else is unacceptable.”
Smoltz is coming off major surgery. When Dr. James Andrews finished attaching hardware to the pitcher’s right shoulder seven months ago, the assumption was that his career finally was over. We have seen Smoltz navigate medical miracles before, so it’s not surprising his rehab has exceeded expectations.
But this isn’t about that. For all we know, he may throw one pitch in Fenway Park next season, grab his right shoulder and walk off the mound.
What’s key here are two words: risk-reward. In the best-case scenario: Smoltz comes back strong, triggers every incentive bonus and earns over $10 million.
In the worst-case scenario, his career is over. But the Braves could have viewed $5 million as a thank you gift. In baseball’s economic world — and certainly for a legend and a career-franchise player — $5 million is the change bucket.
Smoltz deserved that. He went from starter to closer and then back to starter when nobody thought he could make either transition. He is the only pitcher in major league history with over 200 wins and 150 saves. He is 15-4 in the postseason for a franchise others associated with October failure.
Oh yes, and this: He has passed up chances to pitch for more money elsewhere in free agency, most notably for the Yankees, because he wanted to remain in Atlanta. His children are here. The school he helped build is here. Bobby Cox is here.
What kind of message does this send to players, to fans, to other free agents? This isn’t a budget issue. If the Braves are to be believed — and who really knows now — they have at least another $25 million to spend on payroll. That’s because here we are in January and they can’t get anybody to come here. Their starting rotation is Javier Vasquez, Jair Jurrjens and flip a coin.
If they played three times a week, maybe they could hang in a division race.
“I don’t care how many anchors or staples or whatever are in his shoulder,” Jones said. “If I’m gambling on one guy, it’s John Smoltz.”
It’s one thing for a declining team to struggle to sign a free agent. But to kick a legend and franchise centerpiece to the curb over pocket change is far worse. This wasn’t even a close call.