The Braves way
LOS ANGELES -- The voice on the other end of the phone was hoarse, worn down from too many hours on too many phone calls talking too many different trade scenarios with too many people. But you could tell, through the occasional crackling vocal chord, that John Schuerholz, the general manager of the Braves, was feeling just fine.
While just about every other GM in baseball spun his wheels over the past few weeks of this trading season, Schuerholz kept his team headed right where he wanted it to go. While everyone else stumbled around or made mini-deals just to look as if something was getting done, Schuerholz was thinking big. And so it was late Tuesday afternoon, as the trading deadline passed with a whimper for so many others, that the dean of the game's GMs -- hey, the man has been doing this in Atlanta and, before that, in Kansas City for more than 25 years -- was the one who improved his team the most.
How does the 66-year-old Schuerholz always seem to do it?
"It's not magic. It's not some sort of magic dust we sprinkle around here," he said from his Turner Field office on Wednesday morning. "It's hard work. Every. Single. Year."
The Braves do some things differently than other teams do, but what's important is that what they don't do differently they seem always to do better. Their team philosophy is not unique. They scout and draft carefully, they develop their players and then they use them, if not as their own players then as bargaining chips to get players from other teams. The Braves dip into free agency only occasionally, and then only on an as-needed basis. "I'd rather not depend on other organizations," Schuerholz said. "I'd rather we be able to rely on players ... we know from the very first time we lay eyes on them, when they were 15 or 16 years old."
That blueprint seems simple enough, but it doesn't work without players that other teams want, and that's where the Braves excel. Their farm system has been among the most admired in the sport. This week Schuerholz traded away five young prospects -- including highly regarded switch-hitting catcher-first baseman Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- for the biggest catch of the trading season, the Rangers' Mark Teixeira. He traded away a young starting pitcher, Kyle Davies, for reliever Octavio Dotel. He traded two lefties for another lefty reliever, Royce Ring.
It was an awfully lot to give up, especially considering that Dotel might not be around next year and Teixeira is a free agent after 2008. And Schuerholz isn't denying that. The Braves gave up a ton.
But Schuerholz has the perfect comeback, too. The Braves traded those players because, unlike so many other teams, they could. They had the players to trade. And now they're a better team because of it.
"We traded away very talented players to dramatically improve our major league team," Schuerholz said. "We had an abundance of talent."
Four years ago, in 2003, the Braves boasted the third-highest payroll in baseball, at more than $106 million. Time Warner, then the owner of the Braves, tightened the corporate purse strings after that, and the Braves are now operating, under new owner Liberty Media, with a payroll of somewhere around $85 million. Schuerholz, though, has not skimped on the minor league system. He has continued to invest in scouting and in player development both in the United States and internationally. That money has proven to be well-spent. Without the commitment to all those scouts and coaches, the Braves wouldn't have been able to find and polish the players that other teams now covet.
"We are among the top tier of teams as it relates to scouting and player development [spending]. We are in the Top 10 percent, I'd say," said Schuerholz. "They keep the pipeline filled with talent."
That fertile farm system enabled Schuerholz -- along with assistant GM Frank Wren, director of baseball administration John Coppolella and Kurt Kemp, the team's director of player development -- to burn the phone lines these past few weeks talking with talent evaluators inside and outside of their organization to get their deals done. What they landed was Teixeira, a Gold Glove, switch-hitting first baseman who upgrades the defense and the lineup in one double-edged swing. Along with Teixeira, the Rangers gave the Braves lefty reliever Ron Mahay. The Braves didn't have a lefty specialist in the bullpen.
Schuerholz also swung a deal with Royals GM Dayton Moore -- one of his former assistants -- for Dotel, a hard-throwing right-hander who gives the Braves three possible closers (with Rafael Soriano and current closer Bob Wickman). And, in a separate deal, they talked another hard-throwing lefty reliever, Ring, away from the Padres.
The moves were hailed as brilliant around baseball and, in many people's minds, made the Braves the favorite in the National League East. In the Braves' clubhouse Tuesday, players were unabashedly talking about now having a team that could make it to the World Series.
"That's a good thing," Schuerholz said. "An unintentional, if not unexpected, construct [of making good trades] is that your team is enlivened and becomes more ... spirited."
The Braves' success at the trading deadline was gratifying, too, for the front office. Last season, after finishing on top of their division for 14 straight seasons, the Braves ended up in third place in the National League East. It didn't set well with anyone in Atlanta.
After Tuesday's deadline, and after the new-look Braves clobbered the Astros, 12-4, later that night, Schuerholz and some of his front-office lieutenants had a chance to finally sit back, take the phones away from their ears and reflect on the job they had done.
"I had a glass of wine after the game," Schuerholz said. "It wasn't a celebration. It was a relaxation."
Either way, no one in baseball this trading season deserved it more.