The architect of one of the greatest championship runs in sports stands on a soft carpet of freshly cut grass, arms folded, his face expressionless as he peers through sunglasses into the midday sun. From his perch in front of the home dugout at Cracker Jack Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., John Schuerholz, the longtime general manager of the Atlanta Braves, soaks in the scene: His starter turned closer turned starter, John Smoltz, is unleashing fastballs from the mound; his new rightfielder, a rejuvenated Raul Mondesi, is taking cuts at the plate; and his new ace, Tim Hudson, is fielding grounders at first base.
Like an artist admiring his finished canvas, Schuerholz watches the Braves' latest incarnation, which he hopes will be his latest masterpiece. "Each off-season brings its own challenges, and this off-season may have presented the biggest challenges we've ever faced," says the 64-year-old Schuerholz, citing a winter in which he lost his top hitter, rightfielder J.D. Drew, and two best starting pitchers, righthanders Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz, to free agency. "But I'm pleased with this team, and I think that we've put together another championship-caliber club ... no matter what people are saying."
Forgive Schuerholz for being defensive, but for the past several years members of the baseball cognoscenti have predicted that the Braves' run of National League East titles, which at 13 straight is the longest in pro sports, would end. However, for the last three years the Braves have made the division as competitive as the 1984 presidential election, winning by 19, 10 and 10 games.
Despite this unprecedented standard of excellence, the naysayers have resurfaced in what has become a rite of spring. "The NL East is the most improved division in the majors," says a National League executive. "[The Braves'] run could be in real danger, because the Mets and the Marlins, with their off-season upgrades, could both be very good." One national publication has picked the Braves to finish fourth.
Third baseman Chipper Jones laughs at the thought. "You know, I bought into that stuff last year," says Jones, an 11-year veteran and a member of the 1995 world championship team. "It was the first time I doubted that we'd win the division, but then we win it by 10 games. That's the last time I'm going to doubt this team."
Atlanta's consistency is even more impressive when you consider that over the last five seasons only four teams in the National League have had more player turnover than the Braves, who have averaged 14 new players on their Opening Day roster each year since 2000. During that stretch Atlanta has used five primary starters at first base, four in leftfield, three at second base and three in rightfield. Since 2002 the Braves have had 12 primary starters in the rotation. This season, as the Mets and the Marlins have spent $196.6 million and $66 million, respectively, on free agents, Atlanta thinks that it has built another title team, while spending less than $13 million on six newcomers.
"You associate the Braves with constancy and stability," says Washington Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden. "But they're always putting a new team together. No one gets players more creatively than the Braves."
Atlanta's formula for success has changed since the '90s, when it won with fat payrolls and dominant starting pitching, anchored by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Smoltz. The Big Three have long since disbanded, and the Braves are no longer one of baseball's highest rollers, because of a mandate before last season from owner Time Warner (also SI's parent company) to slash the team's payroll by 20%, from $100 million to $80 million. "We've faced the challenge to be more outside the box, more imaginative with how to put together a team," says Schuerholz, who as he begins his 15th season is the longest-tenured general manager in pro sports. "This winter we had to think way outside the box."
At 9 a.m. on Oct. 12, less than 24 hours after the Braves had been eliminated by the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Schuerholz and assistant G.M. Frank Wren returned to Turner Field to say goodbye to players and outline a plan for the off-season. Their most pressing problems were whether to move Smoltz, the team's All-Star closer for the last 31/2 seasons, into the rotation and shop for a new closer and how to compensate for the probable loss of Drew, who they believed would command a steep price on the free-agent market. (They were right: Drew signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December.)
"We decided that if we could find a viable closer, we were going to move Smoltz," says Wren. Before a World Series game in St. Louis, Schuerholz and Wren bumped into Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin, who mentioned that his All-Star closer, Danny Kolb, was available. A little more than a month later the Braves acquired Kolb for prized pitching prospect Jose Capellan and righthander Alec Zumualt, and Smoltz's relocation was assured.
When Wright got a three-year, $22 million deal with the New York Yankees and Ortiz a four-year, $33 million contract from the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Braves had more work to do. After Schuerholz heard that Hudson was available he turned his full attention on the American League pitcher with 81 wins over the last five years. Early discussions between Schuerholz and Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane fizzled when Schuerholz refused to deal second baseman Marcus Giles, but discussions heated up again at December's G.M. meetings in Anaheim. Less than a week later Atlanta acquired Hudson, who was scheduled to become a free agent at the end of the season, for leftfielder Charles Thomas, righthanded reliever Juan Cruz and top pitching prospect Dan Meyer. (On March 1 the Braves signed Hudson to a four-year, $47 million extension.)
Having added a pair of 20-game winners to the rotation, Schuerholz turned his attention to remaking the outfield on a shoestring budget. For a combined $1.6 million Schuerholz signed Mondesi and leftfielder Brian Jordan, a pair of free agents who combined to hit .229 with eight homers in 345 at bats last season. "Using good scouting and instinct has been my modus operandi as a general manager," says Schuerholz, "and based on our scouting and intelligence on [Mondesi and Jordan], we think both can be very productive for us."
In this age of moneyball, in which scouting often takes a backseat to statistical analysis, Schuerholz is old school, relying heavily on his cadre of scouts to find players at low cost. "You can call John with anything and suggest anything, no matter how crazy it seems," says Braves scout and former major league manager Jim Fregosi. "In fact, John likes crazy. He likes ideas, which is why we're willing to take a chance on guys other teams normally won't."
In 2001 Atlanta plucked Julio Franco, who was 43 years old and had played just one major league game in nearly four years, from a Mexican league. Franco, who hit .309 in 125 games last season, is projected to start at first base this year, splitting time with 25-year-old Adam LaRoche. In 2002 the Braves traded righthander Kevin Millwood to the Philadelphia Phillies for minor league catcher Johnny Estrada, and last year Estrada was the Braves' lone representative at the All-Star Game. In 2003 the team snagged Jaret Wright off waivers for $20,000, and last year the righthander was 15--8 with a 3.28 ERA.
"It's not magic," says Franco. "The front office takes gambles because they know they have great coaches that can turn around people's careers." In the avuncular Bobby Cox, the Braves have a three-time manager of the year who rarely clashes with players. "[Cox] lets players do their thing," says Giles. "He has an amazing way of getting them to only want to do their best for him."
Schuerholz is hoping Cox can bring out the best in Mondesi, who replaces Drew, last year's team leader in homers (31), slugging percentage (.569), on base percentage (.436) and runs scored (115). Mondesi, who hit .241 with three homers in 133 at bats last season for Anaheim and Pittsburgh, was barely on Atlanta's radar until mid-November, when the Braves' front office received a favorable report on Mondesi's play in the Dominican winter league. "One of our scouts had seen him and said he was in great shape, hustling and playing hard," says Wren. "It wasn't that Raul was hitting .350 down there, he just looked good. And that got our attention."
The 34-year-old Mondesi, a two-time 30-30 player, is coming off the most troubled season of a tumultuous 12-year career. Last May the Pirates terminated Mondesi's contract after he left the team to go home to the Dominican Republic because he said he was fearful for his family's safety. He didn't return. (Mondesi was being sued in the Dominican Republic by former major leaguer Mario Guerrero, who says Mondesi promised him 1% of his major league earnings for helping Mondesi as a young player.) Eleven days later Mondesi signed with the Angels, but they terminated his contract after he missed several appointments to rehab his torn right quad.
"Last year was a rough time for me," he says. "I just wanted to put family first. Now everything in my head is clear, and I can focus on baseball." Mondesi spent his off-season at home in San Cristóbal, where he lost 15 pounds by running sprints five days a week in the sweltering heat. "I haven't felt this good since [my rookie season in] '94," says Mondesi, who signed a one-year, $1 million contract.
Atlanta also took a chance on the 37-year-old Jordan, who appeared in just 127 games with the Dodgers and the Texas Rangers over the last two seasons because of a nagging left-knee injury. Jordan says he feels good, and he lost 12 pounds in the off-season by cutting red meat out of his diet. He signed a one-year, $600,000 deal and will be pushed by 25-year-old rookie standout Ryan Langerhans. "I don't need anything to energize me at this point," says Jordan, who hit .281 with 65 homers for Atlanta from 1999 to 2001. "This is an ideal situation for me. I'm ready to turn things around here, and so far this spring I feel great." Adds Schuerholz, "According to our evaluations, [Jordan] hasn't been this healthy and in such good shape in four or five years."
With Schuerholz's latest reclamation projects on board, the Braves are readying themselves for a division that appears stronger than it's been in years. Says Marlins manager Jack McKeon, "I think potentially we have the best starting pitching in the division, but the Braves are the favorites going in because they have this knack for getting the right player. It's not luck that the Braves have won 13 straight."
The architect knows this better than anyone. Last month, on the morning his pitchers and catchers reported, Schuerholz, a former junior high English teacher, stood in front of his staff and delivered his annual spring training speech, which included lyrics from the Man of La Mancha ballad, "The Impossible Dream."
"I didn't sing it; I spared them," says Schuerholz. "I wanted to get across a theme for this season: Strive for the ultimate dream. We're proud of this run of excellence, and we're not planning to see it end anytime soon." ‚ñ†
The Braves have won 13 consecutive National League East titles thanks in part to their knack for bringing out the best in the players they acquire. Below are nine such players over the last six years who showed substantial improvement after coming to Atlanta. (Listed first are the stats for the year prior to the player joining the Braves, followed by his numbers from his first full season with the Atlanta organization.)
MIKE REMLINGER, LHP
1998: 8-15, 4.82 ERA in 35 games (28 starts) with Reds
1999: 10-1, 2.37 ERA in 73 appearances with Braves
JOHN BURKETT, RHP
1999: 9-8, 5.62 ERA in 30 games (25 starts) with Rangers
2000: 10-6, 4.89 ERA in 31 games (22 starts) with Braves
JULIO FRANCO, 1B*
2001: .437, 18 HRs, 90 RBIs in 110 games in Mexican league
2002: .284, 6 HRs, 30 RBIs in 125 games with Braves
CHRIS HAMMOND, LHP
2001: 10-4, 2.95 ERA in 49 starts in Triple A
2002: 7-2, 0.95 ERA in 63 appearances with Braves
MIKE HAMPTON, LHP*
2002: 7-15, 6.15 ERA in 30 starts with Rockies
2003: 14-8, 3.84 ERA in 31 starts with Braves
J.D. DREW, RF
2003: .289, 15 HRs, 42 RBIs in 100 games with Cardinals
2004: .305, 31 HRs, 93 RBIs in 145 games with Braves
ELI MARRERO, OF
2003: .224, 2 HRs, 20 RBIs in 41 games with Cardinals
2004: .320, 10 HRs, 40 RBIs in 90 games with Braves
JOHN THOMSON, RHP*
2003: 13-14, 4.85 ERA in 35 starts with Rangers
2004: 14-8, 3.72 ERA in 33 starts with Braves
JARET WRIGHT, RHP
2003: 1-5, 8.37 ERA in 39 appearances with Padres
2004: 15-8, 3.28 ERA in 32 starts with Braves
*still with Atlanta