Admiring the Atlanta Braves' rotation is like looking at a Vermeer or C�zanne exhibit. You're seeing one of the greatest collections ever assembled, but the engagement may be limited. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery are in the midst of a four-year run of success unequaled by any rotation in major league history, with one possible exception: the 1949-53 Cleveland Indians' staff of Mike Garcia and Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. Soon Atlanta's rotation, which neither opponents nor injury has been able to tear asunder, will be faced with its most divisive threat yet—free agency.
Glavine, 30, Smoltz, 29, and Avery, 26, can be free agents after this season. Maddux, 30, can be a free agent after the 1997 season. The four pitchers are earning a combined $21.45 million this year. Take a good look. This may be their final season together.
"When you think about it, you alternate between reality and the hope that it won't be that way," Glavine says of the possible breakup. "We'd love to stay together, but you also have to deal with reality. We know [Braves owner] Ted Turner doesn't have an unlimited supply of money. But it is nice to know that if any organization can keep us together, this is the one to do it."
The Braves' quartet already is one of only 14 foursomes in history to stay together for at least three years in a row. Their .656 winning percentage from 1993 to '95 ranks third among those foursomes and is the best since 1911, easily topping noted Los Angeles Dodgers rotations such as Fernando Valenzuela, Burt Hooton, Bob Welch and Jerry Reuss (.590 winning percentage from 1981 to '83), and Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres and Stan Williams (.585, 1960-62).
Only two rotations extended their run into a fourth year: Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Larry Gura and Rich Gale of the 1978-81 Kansas City Royals (.574 winning percentage) and the aforementioned Indians, who carried theirs into a fifth season. Those Indians combined for a .620 winning percentage and a 3.32 ERA. At week's end the Braves had that Cleveland staff beaten on both counts: a .663 winning percentage and a 3.02 ERA. And unlike the Indians, who won pennants immediately before and after their big four's five-year run but never during it, Atlanta's staff has pitched its team to a world championship.
Like a master's artwork, the value of the Braves' rotation continues to appreciate. It is having its best year yet. Exactly one third of the way through the season, the Atlanta starters were 29-12 with a 2.48 ERA—led by Smoltz, who was 11-1 with a 2.24 ERA. Maddux, the Cy Young Award winner four years running, is the laggard of the group with a 2.88 ERA, which still left him ninth in the National League.
It was suggested to Glavine that the four pitchers demand to negotiate together, as Koufax and Drysdale once did. "It's not a bad idea," Glavine says. "But if Smoltzie keeps going the way he's going, there will be nothing left for the rest of us."