Schuerholz was sure Braves would improve, but this Team grows up in 1 quick year

October 27, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

MINNEAPOLIS -- Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz will not insult your intelligence. He will not tell you that he knew all along that his team was going to end up in the World Series.

But he will tell you that he knew that the Braves were not going to go from last place in 1990 to last place again this year. That much he knew when the team broke camp this spring.

"When we made the Otis Nixon deal [April 1] at the end of spring training, I though pretty much that we had all the pieces in place," said Schuerholz, who had just completed his first off-season with the club at that point.

He did not say that all the pieces would add up to a National League pennant or even a division championship -- just that the youth-oriented Braves would get out of the cellar. They would grow out of it, if nothing else.

"This year, I figured we be about .500 or slightly above," he said. "Next year, I thought we could contend. It came together more quickly than I thought."

Funny he should bring up the acquisition of Nixon as the pivotal move. Nixon was a very important member of the club until a drug-related suspension left him in exile while the rest of the team stormed into the postseason.

Now, there is barely a mention of Nixon in the club's postseason media guide. He is not even in the team picture. But he was one of the veteran players that helped build a winning attitude on a team that didn't win very much a year earlier.

The others included third baseman Terry Pendleton, whose four-year, $10.4 million free-agent contract was considered something of a gamble in the Braves front office. A necessary gamble. The club also signed first baseman Sid Bream and shortstop Rafael Belliard away from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Juan Berenguer away from the Minnesota Twins.

The Braves already had a tremendous nucleus of young talent. )) David Justice was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1990. Ron Gant had hit 32 home runs in only his third season at the major-league level. And then there were the young pitchers, who need no introduction after the way they pitched in the National League Championship Series.

Pendleton came back from a disappointing 1990 season with the St. Louis Cardinals to provide tremendous offensive leadership. He won the National League batting title and added enough run production (22 homers, 86 RBI) to rate some votes for National League Most Valuable Player honors.

Bream platooned with Brian Hunter at first base and the two combined for 23 home runs and 95 RBI. Belliard had his the best offensive season of his career and provided solid infield defense. Berenguer saved 17 games. Nobody flopped.

Is this just more proof that free agency is good for the game? Can any club do this kind of thing?

"I think it's easier to win a championship now," said Braves senior vice president Hank Aaron. "Now, you can go out and get a few free agents and keep a few hungry kids. That's what both these ballclubs [the Twins and the Braves] have done. Neither one is a particularly high-priced team."

It might be easier, but both teams are here because they had solid talent to begin with. There aren't that many last-place teams that can say they are just a player away, even in this day of free-agent-induced parity.

"If every team had the nucleus of talent as good as we had," Schuerholz said, "then they would have a chance to do the same thing. But if the nucleus isn't that strong, there's no reason to expect that you can get competitive by adding a couple of players.

"You have to have that foundation. The foundation here was created by Bobby Cox when he was the general manager. That foundation made it possible for me to go out and supplement it."

Schuerholz also made a smooth move in down the stretch, acquiring relief pitcher Alejandro Pena, who saved 11 games in the final five weeks of the season.

Pendleton was a calculated risk, a make or break decision in Schuerholz's first year in the National League. It turned out to be sheer genius, of course, but no one could have been sure that would happen when the Braves laid out all that money.

"I'm sure everybody was skeptical," Aaron said. "The year before, he didn't have a great year. But sometimes you have to be lucky. You have to pick the right veteran player. Pendleton came over here and he wanted to prove that he could still play baseball."

As it turned out, the Braves were both lucky and good. The young players continued to mature -- which doesn't always happen -- and the new additions helped put them over the top.

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