Braves put winning hand at risk

ON BASEBALL

November 15, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz didn't get to the top of his profession by playing it safe. He's the guy who -- as general manager of the Kansas City Royals -- traded pitcher David Cone to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn. But he knows that sometimes you have to go out on a limb to see over the horizon.

Schuerholz made another risky deal on Tuesday, trading former 20-game winner Denny Neagle to the Cincinnati Reds in a multi-player deal that brought second baseman Bret Boone and left-hander Mike Remlinger to Atlanta. The Braves sacrificed an important component of the best starting rotation in baseball in favor of a more balanced club and better up-the-middle defense, apparently banking on the continued success of pitching prospect Bruce Chen to fill the fifth slot in the rotation.

Was it the right decision? Only time will tell, but the Braves had reached the postseason seven straight times on the strength of their outstanding pitching staff. Last year, they finished 18 games ahead of the New York Mets, a team that had to spend $123 million recently just to keep free agents Mike Piazza and Al Leiter.

Left to themselves, the Braves were a lock to reach the postseason again next year, but they have won the NL East so regularly that just making the playoffs no longer is enough to satisfy their owner or their fans.

They have won the World Series once in those seven 1990s playoff appearances. Schuerholz needs another trophy before the Golden Triangle -- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz -- go into decline. Give him credit for taking decisive action, even if he might be guilty of fixing something that wasn't really broken.

Of course, the whole situation takes on a different tint if the Braves step up and sign free-agent pitcher Kevin Brown, which would leave them with an even more impressive rotation than before and the balanced offensive team that would make them a strong bet to cruise to next year's Fall Classic.

Stranger things have happened, but it appears that Schuerholz has decided to assimilate Chen into the rotation and continue the gradual transition to a younger pitching staff.

Vina on the block

Before the Braves acquired Boone, they were hot after Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina. The Brewers still want to deal him, perhaps to the Blue Jays or the Orioles. The Indians also expressed interest, but only as a fallback position in case they fail to come to terms with Roberto Alomar.

Sophomore season

It has been a year since the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays chose up sides in the expansion draft and waded into the free-agent market to fill out their major-league rosters.

Both spent liberally and traded freely in an attempt to forgo the usual expansion growing pains and put a representative team on the field, but both ended up at the bottom of their respective divisions.

The Devil Rays apparently have learned a lesson from that. The Diamondbacks might be another story.

Tampa GM Chuck Lamar offered free-agent third baseman Dean Palmer a four-year contract worth $28 million, but put the money back in the vault when Palmer accepted a five-year deal from Detroit. The Devil Rays also reaffirmed their commitment to player development by rebuffing any attempt to acquire their top young stars during last week's general managers meeting in Naples, Fla.

"Sometimes you get anxious because you want to improve your organization quickly," Lamar told the Tampa Tribune this week, "but right now I think we might improve most by not making some of the moves that have been offered. Could we have dealt one or more of these young players? Absolutely. But right now, I don't want to."

The D-backs, meanwhile, have been courting superstar pitcher Randy Johnson and premier center fielder Bernie Williams, as if either one of them would be enough to boost a last-place club into playoff contention.

Owner Jerry Colangelo stoked last year's salary boom by giving over-market contracts to veteran infielders Jay Bell and Matt Williams. Don't be surprised if he does it again with Johnson. He's got to do something with all the money he's saving during the NBA lockout.

Blue Jays budget battle

The Toronto Blue Jays reportedly have put pitching ace Roger Clemens on the market again, just days before he probably will win his fifth American League Cy Young Award.

The club had so much success with its downsizing program in July -- bouncing back to make a late wild-card bid after dumping several high-salaried players -- that they are going to keep chopping away at the payroll, which is expected to be cut by about 14 percent.

GM Gord Ash won't let Clemens go cheaply, however. He reportedly asked the Texas Rangers for three quality players in return for The Rocket. Rangers GM Doug Melvin politely declined and turned his attention to trying to sign a free-agent starter.

Goodbye Jose?

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