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 Crist�bal, 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."