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BRAVING THE DEPTHS
Gerry Fraley
June 20, 1988
After years of bad management Atlanta has hit rock bottom—or so it hopes
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June 20, 1988

Braving The Depths

After years of bad management Atlanta has hit rock bottom—or so it hopes

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•Bad drafts. Of the Braves' last 15 first-round choices in the June draft, only two are playing in Atlanta: reliever Jim Acker and Murphy. St. Louis has as many of the Braves' No. 1 picks as the Braves do—reliever Ken Dayley and in-fielder Bob Horner. Previous Turner-era administrations considered the draft a nuisance and allocated small sums for signings. The Braves scouted according to economics, not ability; the 1981 selections demonstrate the philosophy that made Atlanta what it is today. Because the Braves set aside only $30,000 to sign their top pick, they passed on the likes of John Cerutti, Devon White, Neal Heaton, Frank Viola and David Cone and chose Jay Roberts, a high school football standout from Centralia, Wash. While each of the aforementioned five is an important major leaguer, Roberts was released in 1984 without getting past Class A and is now playing football at the University of Washington. Of the 47 other players Atlanta drafted that year, only one reached Class AAA. None got to the majors.

"Nothing will hurt you more than poor drafts," says Cox. "That's your life-blood, and it was cut off here. We can't let that happen." In 1987 Cox approved the expenditure of $1.3 million for signing draft choices.

•Bad decisions. What do Jeff Bittiger, Terry Leach, Larry McWilliams, Pascual Perez and Bob Walk have in common? All are on major league pitching staffs, and all were released by the Braves in the last five years. In this decade, the Braves have also traded away pitchers Alexander, Dayley, Steve Bedrosian, Brian Fisher, Gene Garber, Steve Shields and Duane Ward.

Some of the decisions were reasonable. Alexander brought Smoltz from Detroit. Garber appeared to be on the decline. Atlanta understandably lost patience with Ward. The other decisions spoke of the confusion that riddled the front office. In 1984 the Braves sent Dayley and first baseman Mike Jorgensen to St. Louis for third baseman Ken Oberkfell. Torre and his pitching coach, Bob Gibson, thought Dayley was too passive to pitch effectively. Since then Dayley has been a main cog in the Cardinal bullpen. Oberkfell, in his 14th professional year, has yet to have a 50 RBI season.

The Brad Komminsk decision surpassed all others. That one, says Cox, "set the franchise back a few years." Komminsk was the darling of Atlanta's minor league director, Henry Aaron, who said, "He will do things Dale Murphy hasn't dreamed of." Komminsk was 20 and still in Class A at the time. Not surprisingly, he became the victim of great expectations. On four separate occasions the Braves brought him up to play the outfield, and he hit .216 with 12 homers in 642 at bats. While Komminsk struggled, the Braves refused trade offers for him, including Boston's offer of Jim Rice. Finally, in 1987, the Braves traded Komminsk to Milwaukee for outfielder Dion James; at the end of last week Komminsk was hitting .268 with the Triple A Denver Zephyrs.

The first thing Cox did when he took over was hire Bobby Dews as Aaron's assistant. Dews now runs the farm system and is more involved in decisions than Aaron, who has a tough enough job just being Henry Aaron.

•Bad trades. Trading Dayley for a powerless third baseman pales in comparison to the Len Barker fiasco. In 1983 the Braves were in a pennant race with the Dodgers. On Aug. 19 of that year, Los Angeles traded Dave Stewart to Texas for pitcher Rick Honeycutt. Atlanta had offered Dayley and outfielder Terry Harper to the Rangers for Honeycutt. Panic gripped the Braves. Turner, intent on beating the Dodgers, ordered general manager John Mullen to get a pitcher at all costs as soon as possible. The best available veteran was the Cleveland Indians' Barker, about whom Atlanta scouts had mixed feelings. But because Turner isn't one to suffer insubordination lightly, Mullen sent outfielder Brett Butler, third baseman Brook Jacoby and pitcher Rick Behenna to Cleveland for Barker.

Barker ended up going 10-20 with a 4.66 ERA for the Braves. He was released in 1986 and is collecting the last payments on his five-year, $4.1 million contract this year. Jacoby hit 69 homers in the last three seasons with Cleveland, and Butler stole 112 bases and scored 289 runs. If the Braves are going to make a blockbuster trade this year or next, it will involve Murphy. At the 1986 winter meetings the Mets approached Cox about trading his star. Cox refused on two grounds. First, WTBS, Turner's superstation, needed a big attraction for its ratings, and, second, there had to be some foundation for the rebuilding—Murphy, 32, still has at least five good years in him.

Murphy could have left Atlanta as a free agent last winter had he wanted to. Instead, without making even the vaguest threat, he signed a three-year contract worth $6 million. Why?

"My home is here," says Murphy. "I believe in what this organization is trying to do. I've been part of the problem. I haven't been real productive." He has only averaged 36 homers and 105 RBIs over the past six seasons. "A lot can happen with a little hard work," he says. This year his production has fallen off. Through last weekend he was on a 23 homer, 68 RBI pace.

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