So when the new, not necessarily improved Atlanta Braves take the field next April, what are the odds we'll be able to tell them from, say, the Devil Rays?
Oh, John Smoltz will still be receiving mail at Turner Field. As will Chipper Jones, Rafael Furcal and Andruw Jones. So that'll help. But even for a team that has specialized in constantly changing face while raising those first-place banners, the 2004 Braves have outdone themselves.
This isn't just a changing face anymore. This is reconstructive surgery. This is a team that ought to hang a sign over the dugout that says: "Under renovation."
"I thought last year, when we had four starting pitchers gone and people were asking how in the world we'd survive, that was our year of biggest change," said GM John Schuerholz on Saturday. "But this year, I think, we've even topped that."
Well, in case they hadn't topped it already, Schuerholz helped them along Saturday at the baseball winter meetings, by turning a five-player trade with the Cardinals. It was a deal that imported J.D. Drew to replace Sheffield in right field. Eli Marrero also came along for the ride, as a backup catcher-outfielder-first baseman super-utility whiz.
The Braves could afford to trade away Jason Marquis in this deal. And there are enough free-agent left-handed relievers out there that they can live without Ray King, too. But it tells you something about the current state of the Braves that they reluctantly agreed to trade away their best pitching prospect, Adam Wainwright, for a guy (Drew) who could easily be out the door in a year and who, in many ways, is still living off his college reputation as (ahem) The Best College Player Ever.
"We needed to make this deal," Schuerholz said firmly, when asked about that decision. "We thought (Drew) was the best guy out there -- for us -- either via trade or free agency."
Drew has been brittle and disappointing over five-plus enigmatic seasons in St. Louis. But Schuerholz said the Braves are doing that fabled glass-half-full take on his track record -- by telling themselves "he's had his injuries and dealt with them, and we view this year as the year he'll be healthy and play more games and have more production than in the past."
Well, if Drew ever is going to turn into that Next Mickey Mantle he once was billed to be, this had better be the time and the place.
He's going back home to Georgia. He's in his free-agent year. And he's going to a team that, in the words of one scout, "always seems to keep pushing the right button on guys who go over there, even for a year."
But one of these years, they know, they're going to push those buttons and buzzers will sound, sirens will ring and another first-place finish isn't going to pop out of the old vending machine. So the question is: Have they finally reached that point?
Only two Braves -- Smoltz and Chipper -- remain now from the team that won the 1995 World Series. Just three -- Smoltz, Chipper and Andruw Jones -- are left from the Braves of just four years ago, the team that got swept in the Series by the Yankees after winning more games (103) than any team in baseball.
The now-departed Sheffield and Lopez accounted for 37 percent of the Braves' home runs this past season all by themselves. And Maddux, even in a year when he had his highest ERA since 1987, still won more games (16) than all but two of the approximately 4 trillion pitchers on this winter's free-agent market (Andy Pettitte and Sidney Ponson).
Now the Braves have replaced Sheffield with the often-exasperating Drew. Maddux's replacement is John Thomson, a guy who was nontendered just last winter by the Mets. Lopez's spot will be taken by the talented but unproven Johnny Estrada. And at first base, rookie Adam LaRoche will most likely platoon -- with somebody else (probably Julio Franco).
At least Schuerholz makes no pretense about the reason for all this. Money, of course. (You were expecting maybe food poisoning?)
The Braves are slashing payroll from about $95 million to approximately $80 million. But Schuerholz says he's doing his best to avoid singing another chorus of his now-famous rendition of The System Stinks Blues -- a tune he crooned last year, after trading Kevin Millwood, during what he later termed his "whining phase."
"Now," he laughed Saturday, "I'm not whining anymore. That's just the way it is. My whining era is over."
"But," John Schuerholz added over his shoulder, on his way out of the press room, "it still stinks."
Winter meetings rumblings
It's hard to find anyone with any familiarity with either Roger Clemens, the Astros or both who doesn't think Clemens' return to the Astros is just about inevitable. One baseball man who has spoken with the Astros says Clemens even has indicated he's willing to take a salary well below market value and will defer as much money as they need to make next season's payroll work.
Now that they've signed Mike Cameron, the Mets will turn to their next objective -- finding a closer. They've talked to free agent Ugueth Urbina. But indications are that they're more likely to trade for either Billy Koch or Scott Williamson. And if we were betting men, we'd bet on Koch, given his connection (from Oakland) to new pitching coach Rick Peterson.
The Yankees scene continues to be full of mixed signals, thanks to George Steinbrenner's one-man negotiating show. Although some sources were saying the Yankees were actively checking out Vladimir Guerrero on one front, another source who had talked with the Yankees say they seem to be veering back in Gary Sheffield's direction.
One baseball official said he'd been told the Yankees now were convinced that Sheffield finally "got the message" the team was delivering by avoiding his calls and pursuing Guerrero. And that meant the deal with Sheffield could be tied up shortly, at the rate Steinbrenner swore he'd agreed to -- three years, $39 million, with deferrals that bring the average annual value down to $12 million a year for luxury-tax computations.
There were numerous indications that the Yankees' negotiations with Kenny Lofton are "just about done." The Yankees are believed to be giving Lofton a two-year deal for between $6.5 million and $7 million.
Two teams that have been speaking with the Red Sox said they came away with the clear impression that center fielder Johnny Damon is now available. The Red Sox are also prepared to trade either Williamson or Byung-Hyun Kim.
GM Theo Epstein said he would like to get back some "flexibility" after adding Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to the payroll. But he said he wasn't interested in making deals just to subtract dollars.
"If we can make a move that makes us better and gives us flexibility, that's the way to go," he said. "But we're not just looking to dump."
After the Cardinals-Braves trade was completed, Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty described it as "an old-time baseball deal." But it was also a new-time baseball deal -- because one of its biggest selling points for the Cardinals was that they freed up close to $6 million by trading Drew and Marrero, while adding the much-lower-priced Marquis and King.
Both Maddux and Kevin Millwood have told friends they're interested in signing in St. Louis. And there have been rumblings that manager Tony La Russa has been quietly lobbying for Maddux. But while Jocketty says he's still shopping for another starter, he didn't sound like a man who thought either Maddux or Millwood were in his price range.
"We have more financial flexibility, and we're in much better position to add more quality to our pitching staff," he said. "But we also have to add people in our outfield."
The Cardinals are looking for a left fielder, a right fielder and possibly a second baseman. La Russa has also pushed for Roberto Alomar to play second. But with Bo Hart on board at second, the corner outfield spots are a bigger priority. One name thought to be on their shopping list: Jose Cruz Jr.
With other teams -- most notably the Dodgers -- working hard to trade for Drew, it appeared the Cardinals were prepared to deal him elsewhere until Schuerholz agreed Saturday to include Wainwright, a one-time No. 1 pick who is 35-26, with a 3.34 ERA in his minor-league career, with 560 strikeouts in 539 innings.
"I don't know if they were going in another direction," Schuerholz said. "But I came to the conclusion that without him, I didn't think we'd be able to make the deal."
Wainwright, 22, was the Braves' most highly regarded young pitcher. But one scout said the Braves were actually getting worried because he wouldn't stop growing. It's believed he has grown from 6-foot-6 to close to 6-9 in the last year or so. And some scouts think his size has begun to affect his mechanics.
Pudge Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, met with the Orioles -- a team believed to be Pudge's current preferred destination. But it appears that both Guerrero and Miguel Tejada rank above either Rodriguez or Javy Lopez on the Orioles' list. Meanwhile, one NL GM predicts the Orioles will sign Sidney Ponson before the meetings end Monday. But there were no indications late Saturday that the Orioles and Ponson were close to a deal.
The Orioles have looked into Jose Guillen as a fallback in right field if they lose out on Guerrero. But the Dodgers and Angels have both been more aggressive in their interest in Guillen.
Just because the Dodgers traded a minor leaguer to be named later for Florida's Juan Encarnacion on Saturday, don't write Encarnacion's name onto the Dodgers' lineup card in permanent marker quite yet. The Marlins had been widely expected to nontender Encarnacion. And officials of two other clubs that had interest in Encarnacion say they've been told the Dodgers will take the next week to try to sign him at a "reasonable" price -- and if they can't, they could also nontender him.
Last winter, the Marlins came up with what owner Jeffrey Loria called "special money" to sign Pudge Rodriguez. There are continuing rumblings that this winter, they're trying to find more of that special money to make a serious run at Vladimir Guerrero. Florida also is talking to Texas about trading pitcher Mark Redman to the Rangers.
San Diego is trying to sign free agent (and former Padre) Sterling Hitchcock to a one-year deal. And Padres GM Kevin Towers denied reports out of Pittsburgh that they had renewed interest in catcher Jason Kendall. The Padres have already filled their catching needs by trading for Oakland's Ramon Hernandez.
Although baseball people continue to speculate about Greg Maddux winding up in San Diego, one baseball man who has followed that situation says the Padres have told Maddux they have no interest in making an offer unless he signals them that San Diego is where he wants to be. And even then, it would be with the understanding that the most the Padres would be willing to pay him is two years at $11-12 million per season.
Rondell White's two-year, $6-million deal with Detroit on Saturday night means you can cross Reggie Sanders off the Tigers' list. The Tigers had offered nearly identical contracts to both players, and the first one to accept turned out to be White.