Brave new (old) world revisited

Atlanta retools 'pen in effort to be great again

Posted: March 28, 2007

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The answer came to John Schuerholz one day last October. After another long day of meetings during which the Atlanta Braves general manager analyzed, discussed, researched and pondered why, for the first time since 1990, his team wasn't in the playoffs, he decided to dine at a Chinese restaurant near Turner Field.

After he finished eating, he cracked open the fortune cookie and there it was, the answer he'd been seeking, pithy wisdom summed up in a few wise words.

"Fix Bullpen, Good Things Will Follow," the thin strip of white paper read.

Aw, just kidding.

The reality, though, is that the reason the Braves' amazing streak of 14 straight division titles ended last season was just that simple, just that obvious. And Schuerholz will now acknowledge he saw it coming more than a year ago, even as he was assuring everyone that Atlanta would be just fine with Chris Reitsma as the closer, thank you very much.

"You know how we baseball people are," he said recently before an exhibition at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. "We always prefer to be positive and optimistic. But we knew what the reality was, and you could see it from the work of the previous winter. We tried to sign every free-agent reliever out there. We tried to sign [Bob] Wickman, Trevor Hoffman, Danys Baez. We tried to get them all and our pile of money wasn't as big as the others, and we couldn't get them.

"So we said, 'OK, we're going to try to make this work.' We've got the most positive manager in the world [Bobby Cox], who thinks guys can step up and do the job, but we were concerned about it. And sadly it came home to roost on us, and it cost us dearly."

The numbers tell the story. Braves relievers had 29 blown saves, second in the majors to the Kansas City Royals (31). The Mets' bullpen failed to convert 15 save opportunities and won the National League East going away.

"What if we had just had a horrible year blowing saves, say 20? We might have been in the World Series," Cox said. "We had a good team last year. But you've got to have all areas going to win."

Schuerholz actually began addressing that last July 20 when he acquired Wickman from the Indians for minor league catcher Max Ramirez. Wickman converted 18 of 19 save opportunities with a 1.04 earned run average after coming to Atlanta, but it was too late to salvage the season. The Braves moved quickly to sign him to a 1-year extension.

Then, at the winter meetings, Schuerholz traded lefthanded starter Horacio Ramirez to the Mariners for setup reliever Rafael Soriano. And he wasn't done yet.

On Jan. 17, first baseman Adam LaRoche was shipped to the Pirates for lefthanded reliever Mike Gonzalez. And, with that flourish, what had been Atlanta's biggest weakness in 2006 was transformed - on paper, at least - into its strength.

"We vowed to ourselves we wouldn't have to endure that again, so we tried as best we could to improve the bullpen in a dramatic fashion," Schuerholz said. "Now, I can't tell you I thought we were going to get three guys of this quality when we started this process, but we were able to create what we think is the strongest back end of the bullpen we've ever had.

"Maybe [adding Gonzalez] was overkill, because we suffered so remarkably last year because of our bullpen, but I don't think so. Because Wickman [is 38 and] who knows how much longer he's going to go? Gonzalez is a guy we've got under contract for 3 years. He could be our closer this year if something happens to Wickman. Or certainly for the next 2 and maybe beyond. And Soriano we know can provide us with a great setup guy."

The Braves weren't the only team hot to acquire Gonzalez.

"But we were the only team that had a player of Adam La-Roche's caliber who fit their need absolutely perfectly," Schuerholz said. "[Pirates GM Dave Littlefield] and I talked a long, long time. We spent a lot of months discussing this. Because it's a big deal. We hated like hell to give up a guy who hits like he does [.285, 32 homers, 90 RBI] and plays defense like he does. But we had Scott Thorman. If we didn't have Scott Thorman, we couldn't have made this deal."

Gonzalez (64 strikeouts in 54 innings for the Pirates in 2006) figured he'd be on the move last winter. He just didn't know where.

"I knew that I was trade bait. I knew pretty much that I was the only thing the Pirates had for leverage to get something they needed," he said.

"I didn't pay too much attention to it, and it finally happened. I didn't think about where I'd like to go. The only thing I changed is to prepare myself mentally for anything. I got myself in the best physical and mental shape I can to be able to go out and play. I knew it was going to be a contending team, because those were the only teams that would be able to let something like that - a power lefthanded hitter - go."

Bullpen improvement aside, the Braves still have issues.

Thorman, for all his potential, is unproven. And he hit only 20 homers in 437 at-bats between Triple A Richmond and Atlanta last season.

Third baseman Chipper Jones has only 219 games in the last 2 years because of injuries. He will see if going from size 13 to 14 in cleats will help ease some of his foot problems.

Staff ace John Smoltz turns 40 in May.

Second baseman Kelly John-son is a converted outfielder who spent the winter being tutored on his new position by Braves coach Glenn Hubbard.

The Braves, once among baseball's top-spending teams, had to turn to Johnson because financial concerns forced them to non-tender Marcus Giles rather than pay him about $5 million.

Acclaimed righthander Tim Hudson is coming off a subpar season (13-12, 4.86). He has said he's reverted to an offseason training program he used when he was one of the American League's dominant pitchers with Oakland.

Lefthander Mike Hampton is trying to come back from September 2005 reconstructive elbow surgery. And his return was delayed at least a month when, early in spring training, he strained a rib-cage muscle taking batting practice.

Centerfielder Andruw Jones can be a free agent at the end of the season and is thought to be seeking a long-term deal with an average annual value around $20 million.

Despite all that, the Braves go about their business these days with an air of quiet confidence. Young players who had to be depended on a year ago - Chad Paronto, Tyler Yates, Lance Cormier, Pete Orr - should be in more supporting roles or even back at Richmond.

And with most of the focus in the division race seemingly on the Mets and Phillies, the Braves find themselves in the unaccustomed spot of not being the defending champions.

"I like sneaking up on people," Cox said with a grin.

"It felt like we won when we were winning, but I didn't approach spring training like it," Cox said. "Because what you did last year doesn't mean anything, win or lose. I always approached spring training with that attitude. 'It doesn't mean anything, boys, you've got to start over.' "

Now the Braves are starting over with a revamped bullpen. And, as everybody knows, good fortune often comes to teams that are at their best in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. *

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