Friday, January 9, 2009

No Smoltz, No Fire?

John Smoltz signs with Boston

This news first broke Wednesday night and became official yesterday. For obvious reasons I've been focused on the gridiron for the last week, so this entry is slightly behind the curve. But it's important.

Rob Neyer once wrote that Smoltz was the easiest of the Big Three to relate to, the most human. I don't agree with that, but I see what he means. Maddux and Glavine just chugged through the years, posting great season after great season, never suffering injuries or performance downturns. They were like Swiss watches: clean, reliable, always effective.

Smoltz, on the other hand, dealt with the peaks and valleys that define the human experience. He was always great in the postseason. But his first truly extraordinary playoff start, Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, was marred by the knowledge that his team lost what might well be the greatest World Series game in baseball history. And when the Braves finally did win their one World Series, he had his worst postseason. (The Indians knocked him out of his lone World Series start after just 2 1/3 innings)

He won the Cy Young award in 1996 with 253 innings. But he missed the whole 2000 season, all but 20 innings of the 2008 season, large chunks of the 2001 season and lengthy swaths of several other years due to injuries. It's a cruel thing to be blessed with an arm that throws thunderbolts but punishes you for your gifts with excrutiating pain.

It was that fragility which ultimately led to this moment. The Red Sox have guaranteed Smoltz $5 million; the Braves' offer was just for $2 million. According to (the not-always-reliable) Mark Bowman, Atlanta's incentives were slightly more lucrative than Boston's. ($12 million to $10 million)

$3 million is the difference between losing John Smoltz and seeing him finish his career in Atlanta. It's...hard to take.

General managers aren't paid to be sentimental creatures. A lot of teams have lost a lot of games because they held on to players past their prime because they had contributed to previous glories. Frank Wren can't afford to pay in the future for what John Smoltz has done in the past. It's not realistic or fair to shout from the peanut gallery that Wren should have thrown at Smoltz anything he wanted to keep him in Atlanta.

But $3 million, in the context of a baseball team's payroll, simply isn't a substantial amount of money. It's eminently possible that Smoltz will flag in his rehab and never throw a pitch for the Red Sox, in which case they'd be out $5 million. As others have pointed out, Boston's more able to weather a $5 million hit than the Braves.

But, again, the Braves were willing to risk $2 million on John Smoltz. Why was $5 million completely out of the realm of possibility? Or, perhaps, a number greater than $2 million but less than $5 million?

There's another side to this this: did John Smoltz even want to return? He hasn't hidden his distaste for the way the team has degenerated around him. He's a postseason warrior, but a warrior smart enough to know that he had little chance of returning to the playoffs with the 2009 Atlanta Braves. And he's at an age where every opportunity is more likely than not his last.

That's his choice, but while I'm never inclined to attack a player for chasing a championship, Smoltz is not some great player who's toiled for decades with a crummy franchise. He has a ring. He's played in 40 playoff games. He's not missing an integral part of his legacy.

Regardless, this just places a cherry on top of the crap sundae that is Atlanta's off-season. Reports indicate that Wren is engaged in serious negotiations with Derrick Lowe, the free agent starter out of LA. I look forward to seeing the unique way Lowe and agent Scott Boras torment the Braves.

1 comment:

Tanto said...

You should be shot for that title.

Rest of it was agreeable, though.