Glavine fiasco is latest installment in a soap-opera year for the Braves
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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.
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