In light of the Braves' ultrabusy last six months, the events of Wednesday -- when Atlanta released iconic pitcher Tom Glavine, acquired young slugger Nate McLouth and called up pitching phenom Tommy Hanson -- seem like nothing more than the latest installment in a months-long soap opera.
The drama seems almost endless, as a whirlwind half year for unflappable general manager Frank Wren already included very public failed attempts to sign A.J. Burnett and Ken Griffey Jr. and Rafael Furcal (plus a dust-up over what appeared to be Furcal's agent agreeing initially), a failed weeks-in-the-making trade for Jake Peavy, a successful trade for Javier Vazquez, the importing of Kenshin Kawakami, the high-priced, successful signing of Derek Lowe, the extension for the great Chipper Jones and the controversial departure of yet another Atlanta icon in John Smoltz. And that's just the Cliff Notes.
Glavine's longtime agent, Gregg Clifton, began a return email confirming the legendary pitcher's release with the words "Believe it or not...'' And you know what? After the soap-operatic last six months, I do believe it. That makes three transactional controversies involving Cooperstown-bound players for the Braves this year alone.
"It's very tough. That's not the outcome we wanted,'' Wren said by phone. "In our opinion he did not rebound well enough from his injuries to allow him to pitch as well as we would have hoped.''
Wren added, "Probably the most difficult decisions you make involve aging stars.'' He would know. He's made two unpopular calls involving Cooperstown-bound stars.
Contrary to public option, the Braves do care how things look. Otherwise, why bring back Glavine in the first place? And why ask Glavine to retire before releasing him, as they did do? Coincidentally or not, the Braves also seem to cover potential public-relations disasters with partnered moves that put them in a better light. In this case, they had two positive ones, including the impressive McLouth bombshell, to offset Glavine.
Wren, front-office icon John Schuerholz and longtime manager Bobby Cox had the good sense to break the bad news in person to Glavine, who in Wren's estimation, "respectfully'' disagreed. Wren also got the impression that Glavine will try to keep pitching. And perhaps he can. The Braves' pitching situation is far better than most, especially with top prospect Hanson now up. And Wren conceded that that was a factor, too. Hanson may be a better option now. ("He has very good stuff but isn't as polished as David Price,'' is how one NL scout assessed the pitcher who will debut this weekend.)
Yet I still don't think that the Braves handled the Glavine situation perfectly. Glavine was only said by Clifton to be "disappointed,'' and that fits his professional demeanor. But it doesn't look good after the legendary pitcher underwent two separate arm surgeries this winter, diligently worked his way back. Braves people say his stuff was short, that they had no choice. Couldn't the very same thing have been said about Glavine for the past half-decade, at least? They were expecting what... at age 43? In reality, he has never had the stuff to blow folks away, even at his Hall-of-Fame best.
Smoltz weighed in on Wednesday, saying that "ain't no way to treat'' Glavine, and of course we all know that Smoltz has his own issues, having been annoyed to see another Braves official (not Wren) question his own decision to leave, by saying that Atlanta offered the very same amount as the Red Sox. The reality is, Smoltz, who told me in the spring that he once rejected a $53 million contract from George Steinbrenner to sign for $30 million with the Braves, received $5 million guaranteed from the Red Sox when the Brave were offering only $2 million guaranteed. So Smoltz understandably smolders over that.
Technically the Braves did nothing wrong in the case of Glavine. Baseball is a business, and this was merely the latest public reminder. Glavine had a non-guaranteed contract, and being a former player rep and about the smartest guy I've ever covered (tied with Pedro Martinez and Doug Glanville), he understood what that meant.
The way it came down, though, gives the impression (right or not) that Glavine was merely used as a famous, low-priced insurance policy. He served the Braves well to offset the bad pub that came from the Smoltz exit, but ultimately they decided that it wasn't worth the extra measly mil to promote him. Sources indicate that the Braves can't add payroll, so Glavine's release also helped them save McLouth's $2 million salary -- though Wren insisted, "That really wasn't a factor.''
The way things turned out, the Braves did pay Glavine $1 million to do nothing more than be a legend in waiting, and Wren insists that they thought he'd make it -- though despite six shutout innings in his most recent rehab start, in their view, he wasn't making it.
"We didn't anticipate Tommy not being able to pitch the way we had hoped,'' Wren said.
Anyway, the soap opera lives.
If the Braves may appear heartless to outsiders, consider that they themselves have been through the ringer the last six months. Some of their near-misses are legendary. They got close on Peavy before finally getting the idea he wasn't as anxious to come as his unofficial first wish list would indicate. Griffey reportedly was initially telling friends he was head to Atlanta. Furcal, by all rights, should have been theirs.
We'd need quite a large scorecard to go over the Braves' many hits and misses over the past half year. But say this for them, they are working hard and spending liberally to try to win a very tough division. Wren was determined to improve their pitching rotation, and while it was a circuitous route, he has done that. Lowe, while not necessarily their first choice, looks like the best choice. And Vazquez has done a very able job, as well. "We feel like we have the pitching to match up in our division,'' Wren said.
The Braves may not be done, either. Mark DeRosa, who's on the block, is a player who'd fit for them -- although it's going to be tricky if they can't any more payroll. In the trade on Wednesday, Braves people understood they were giving up a lot in young outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke. But they again show they are willing to go for the gusto. The Braves were trading from strength since they've done such a terrific job scouting and trading (Hernandez came with fine young pitcher Jair Jurrjens in the lopsided Edgar Renteria deal with Detroit).
They knew they needed to improve a surprisingly unproductive outfield, and they have done that with a strong move. McLouth isn't quite the defender he's cracked up to be. But he has significant power, upgrades their lineup and gives them a better chance in a difficult division. Wren said, "We weren't anticipating making a trade of this magnitude this early,'' Wren said. "He gives us a legitimate outfielder with speed power and defense we haven't had.''
Not only that, he is a well-needed conversation changer.
A two-year run of shortstops winning my annual survey of major league executives and scouts regarding which players they'd pick to start their team was halted when they overwhelmingly went with a safe choice, star Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, whose career is conjuring comparisons to Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, except that Pujols is slightly more consistent so far.
Hard to believe, but Pujols has finished in the Top 10 in batting average and slugging percentage in all eight of his seasons. What isn't hard to believe is that he was named on 17 of 20 ballots of big-league execs and scouts, won nine first-place votes and easily out-pointed the second-place finisher, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, 70 to 38, in the 5-4-3-2-1 scoring system for this question: Which five players would you pick to start your team?
One exec who picked Pujols said, "He's the total package, the consummate producer with character and leadership.''
The winners the previous two years were Mets shortstop Jose Reyes in 2007 and Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez last year. Reyes did not receive a single vote this time (though five other Mets did), while Ramirez tied with Twins catcher Joe Mauer for fourth with 26 points. Royals pitching sensation Zack Greinke was third (32 points).
Several executives and scouts loved the idea of taking very young players to start their team. Justin Upton was named on four ballots, Tim Lincecum on two, and David Price, Rick Porcello, Adam Jones and Fernando Martinez on one apiece. Speaking of Upton, the NL's Player of the Month for May, one executive said, "He oozes with talent. He's got a lot of Ken Griffey Jr. in him.''
While Upton is only in his third season, no one named had less experience than Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State pitching phenom, who like Jones and Martinez received one fifth-place vote. The one executive who picked Strasburg noted, "He carries his velocity late into games.''
• Miguel Tejada's name is coming up in trade talks. But some contending teams see him only as a third baseman, or a bat. There are criticisms of his hitting too -- "he's pulling off the ball,'' one scout said -- but he is hitting .350.
• The Reds' Joey Votto is out with stress-related issues, but it hasn't come out what the issue is and very few seem to know. Votto is a very private person. Some are wondering whether the death of his father last year may be a factor. In any case I am starting to feel sorry for the Reds, who seem to have more injuries and ailments than anyone over the past decade. Good luck to Votto, as well.
• The Rockies seem willing to talk trade about nearly every player on their team. They'd probably love to find someone to take Todd Helton's contract. How about the Giants, who'd like to see a little more power out of young Travis Ishikawa?
• Quite a catch up the hill in center field by Colorado's Ryan Spilborghs on Lance Berkman, who has no luck at all and is still at .242.
• Rookie Edwin Maysonet is an impressive hitter for the Astros. He's at .382 after a superb spring training.
• Drayton McLane tells Newsday's Ken Davidoff via email that he isn't trading star pitcher Roy Oswalt. Teams have been scouting him, and his name is certainly out there. But we've been here before. McLane famously killed a three-way trade involving Oswalt, the Mets and Orioles a few years back.
• When the Mets went to Pittsburgh, they needed an outfielder. But by the time they left, it appears they need a shortstop, relief pitcher and perhaps a starter, too. Jose Reyes' hamstring tendon tear is a major blow. For now a diminished Alex Cora and full-strength Wilson Valdez will man the spot.
• I did enjoy Carlos Beltran's rips of the Mets ("I'm embarrassed'' Beltran said) after he got up off his sick bed to hit a home run and double in the Mets' 11-6 defeat to the Pirates. Of course, with all the injuries, he's a lot better player than almost all his teammates. That could be the problem.
• Randy Johnson actually seemed touched by his 300th victory, the big lug. He smiled broadly and hugged catcher Benjie Molina shortly after the 5-1 victory over Washington.
• Classy move by Giants team president Larry Baer to travel to rainy Washington for Johnson's night (he was easily picked out in a crowd of hundreds). This is the Giants' way, apparently. All the top Giants people, including new owner Bill Neukom, came to New York for the presentation of the Cy Young award to Tim Lincecum.
• Carlos Zambrano has now been fined by the league and his team within a week. Milton Bradley was right. He is on the "Bradley level.'' Zambrano's last indiscretion was missing the team flight.
• Joe Girardi said he was "surprised'' and couldn't understand why A.J. Burnett received a six-game suspension. Could it have been for firing a ball at Nelson Cruz's head? Sorry Joe, that suspension was well deserved.
• It's great to see the return of Yorvit Torrealba's 11-year-old boy after he was kidnapped earlier this week. Not to get political, but it's time that major leaguers move their families out of Venezuela. One of the favorite people I ever covered, Gus Polidor, was murdered there about a decade ago when some thug was trying to carjack him and Polidor knew his son was in the backseat.
• We have another Twitter winner, as I have surpassed 5,000 followers (now just 195,000 behind Nick Swisher). I will be sending out a prize of marginal value shortly. The initial prize winner, Sonya Keller, did not seem to hate her prize, which was a Yankees All-Star Game pin. Tony La Russa, meanwhile, is suing Twitter, apparently because someone said mean things about him on there. Very litigious fellow that La Russa (who has a legal degree). In the meantime follow me at SI_JonHeyman.
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