What if Dave Winfield had signed with the Braves in 1980?

Bill Shanks

Ted Turner was always trying to land a free agent in his early days as the owner of the Atlanta Braves. He succeeded a few times, with Andy Messersmith, Gary Matthews, Al Hrabosky and a few years later Bruce Sutter.

More times than not, Turner struck out in free agency. The pursuit of Pete Rose in the 1978-79 winter was a farce, as Turner was just out for publicity. So were his talks with Reggie Jackson three years later.

Turner went after Tommy John before the 1979 season, Don Sutton before the 1981 season, Floyd Bannister before the 1983 season and Rich “Goose” Gossage before the 1984 season. They all signed somewhere else. Pitchers were simply afraid to pitch in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, also known at the time as “The Launching Pad.”

Joel Sherman of the New York Post had a great article Tuesday morning about the tense (that’s being nice) relationship between Dave Winfield and late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. It’s a real interesting read.

And, it has a Braves twist that got my attention.

Sherman reports that when Winfield was a free agent before the 1981 season, Winfield claimed that Turner and the Braves offered him more guaranteed money than the Yankees did.

“Winfield picked the Yankees. He had trepidation about Steinbrenner’s publicly critical style. But Steinbrenner had a seductive way when he wanted something. And he wanted Winfield — and no way was he going to let him become a Met nor lose to Turner, his swashbuckling Southern rival.”

I wonder if Winfield regrets not taking the higher guaranteed money from Turner. The Mets also offered more than the Yankees, but in hindsight, maybe Winfield was more comfortable in a smaller market, like San Diego where he played the first eight years of his career. Maybe he would have been more comfortable in Atlanta.

While the Braves were not the Yankees, they were coming off an 81-80 record in the 1980 season. They had one of the best young nucleuses in baseball, with Dale Murphy (who was 25 years old going into the 1981 season), Bob Horner (23), Glenn Hubbard (23) and Bruce Benedict (25), along with prospects like Brett Butler, Rafael Ramirez, Brook Jacoby and others.

Turner had already overpaid for Claudell Washington, a 26-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder who had batted .280 with 149 stolen bases in his six-plus years in the big leagues. Washington got a five-year, $3.5 million dollar deal, one that “sent shockwaves throughout the major-league superstructure,” according to the AJC article written by Ken Picking.

Even that didn’t stop Turner, who still wanted Winfield and Sutton. “One down, two to go,” Turner was quoted as saying after inking Washington.

The Braves had a stacked outfield after getting Washington, was who joining Murphy, Gary Matthews, Jeff Burroughs, Brian Asselstine, Mike Lum and Terry Harper. They really wanted a Washington-Murphy-Winfield outfield, hoping to trade Matthews for pitching. The AJC mentioned the Orioles were ready to trade Dennis Martinez for Matthews.

Wow, that would have been some trade. Martinez was only 27 at the time. He would go on to win 193 games after the 1980 season. Instead, the Braves held onto Matthews and traded him to the Phillies a year later for Bob Walk, who was not good in Atlanta (12-13, 4.85 ERA in 45 games, 36 starts).

Of course, Winfield signed with the Yankees. Sutton signed with the Astros. The Braves wound up adding veteran Gaylord Perry as their big free agent pitcher that offseason, and they didn’t get that big slugger to join Murphy and Washington.

It was interesting to learn how aggressive Turner was almost 40 years ago to try and improve the Braves. It’s a reminder how an individual owner can truly make a difference.

And it’s easy to wonder how the 1980s might have been different if he could have convinced Winfield to join the Atlanta lineup and hit in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Can you imagine that lineup in 1981?

Claudell Washington - LF
Glenn Hubbard - 2B
Dale Murphy - CF
Dave Winfield - RF
Bob Horner - 3B
Chris Chambliss - 1B
Rafael Ramirez - SS
Bruce Benedict - C

Would the Braves have been pretty good with that lineup? Probably so. And if only Winfield had been hungry for money instead of hungry for the big lights of New York City...

Listen to The Bill Shanks Show weekdays at 3:00 p.m. ET on Middle Georgia’s ESPN. You can listen online at TheSuperStations.com. Follow Bill on Twitter at @billshanks and you can email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.