It’s my blog. I can vent if I feel the need.
On October 21, 1983, the Atlanta Braves’ effort to become a serious team ended for almost a decade. On that day, the Braves completed a trade made two months earlier for Cleveland Indians pitcher Len Barker. Going to the Indians was Brook Jacoby, a young third baseman who would nail down the hot corner in Cleveland for a decade, go to a couple of allstar games and tally over a thousand hits and a hundred home runs. In their defense, the Braves thought they had third base nailed down in Bob Horner, who had already smashed 158 home runs through age 25 and looked like a future Hall of Famer. There was no way to know that Horner would be out of baseball by 30 due to injuries.
But the real prize for the Indians was Brett Butler, Atlanta’s excellent and popular center fielder. Butler was a strong leadoff man who put up a .344 OBP and swiped 39 bases. He would go on to become on of the best leadoff men in history, a borderline HOF candidate who smashed 2375 hits, stole 558 bases and had a lifetime .377 OBP. He was a great player. It was obvious to everyone that he would at least become a good player and score a tons of runs hitting in front of Dale Murphy and Bob Horner. But the Braves traded him for Len Barker because … I guess … Barker had thrown a perfect game. Barker would go 10-20 in 232.1 innings with a 4.64 ERA. That was over three years, not one. He would be out of baseball within four years.
The Barker-Butler trade is well-known as one of the worst in history. But it was more than just a bad trade. For the Braves, it was the end of an era. In 1982, the Braves had one of their best seasons, winning 89 games to take the division, then losing the NLCS to the Cardinals. In 1983, they won 88 games but a late-season collapse let the Dodgers win the division. With Joe Torre at the helm and a team that included Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Glenn Hubbard, Phil Niekro — all great players — and some young pitching, they looked poised to turn around “Loserville” as Atlanta was known (and, to some extent, still is). They looked like they would become the first team from Atlanta, in any sport, to become a serious presence.
But the next year, they fell to 80 wins. Then Horner got hurt and went to Japan. Torre got fired. Niekro got traded. Brad Komminsk flopped. The farm system imploded. And the Braves returned to being one of the worst teams in baseball.
This was why 1991 was not only a miracle year, it was one the great miracle years in sports. The Braves didn’t just go worst-to-first and come within a Lonnie Smith hesitation of a championship. They went from a truly terrible team, a nothing on the sports radar, to a dynasty. They were good, they were young and they were run by two great men who knew what they were doing.
And the result was one of the great runs in sports history: 14 straight division titles, five pennants and a championship. An average of 98 wins per season. Four players — Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — are in the Hall of Fame or soon will be. A few more — Fred McGriff, Javy Lopez — have borderline cases. Still more were just great damned players. Their manager is in the Hall of Fame and you could make an argument for their General Manager and their Pitching Coach. It was an amazing time to be a Braves fan. You turned on the TV and knew you were watching a great team that would usually win. If they fell behind in the standings, you knew it was only a matter of time until they would catch up. It was a joy to turn on TBS and watch them dominate. The “Braves Way” was a real thing: great pitching, great defense, timely hitting.
The thing is that the Braves weren’t just a great team, they were a smart team. They developed great prospects (Lopez, Klesko, Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Andruw Jones, David Justice), they traded for great players (Fred McGriff especially), they signed impact free agents (Greg Maddux, Andres Galarraga). They had a great major league team and a great farm system. If someone got injured or left to free agency, they had the depth to replace them. Year after year, everything they touched was gold.
That era has long been over, as exemplified by this summer’s capstone — the induction of Maddux, Glavine and Cox into the Hall of Fame. But now we see we are back to the bad old days. It turns out that capstone was also a gravestone:
Here Lieth the Braves Dynasty: 1991-2005
Last year, I thought maybe the good days were back after almost a decade of middling shuffling semi-contention. They won 96 games, took the division and looked like a team poised for a multi-year run. True, they had albatross contracts in Dan Uggla and BJ Upton. But they had a slew of great young players — Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen. They’d signed a number of them to long-term contracts.
But it was more than just that. The Braves were fun to watch again. I looked forward to every game and would watch them on mlb.tv while messaging my brother. It felt like 1991 all over again, like we were returning to the good old days.
What a difference a year makes. The Braves had a lousy 2014 season, with the bats completely collapsing and several of their young pitchers getting hurt. They finished under .500 and looked terrible the last few months. I couldn’t watch them, it was so maddening.
But as disappointing as the season was, there were still reasons for optimism. They had one of the best pitching staffs in the league. Their defense was very good. They still had the young core that had looked so promising a year earlier. A change of hitting coach (or maybe manager) and they looked good to bounce back in 2015 and fulfill their destiny as the next Braves dynasty.
Well, that apparently wasn’t good enough. A month ago, they traded away Jason Heyward — a 24 y/o Atlanta native and one of the best players on the team — for a disappointing pitcher from the Cardinals. They traded Tommy La Stella, one of their few prospects who could get on base, for an oft-injured former pitching prospect. Yesterday, they traded Justin Upton, their second best player, for some minor league prospects, the best of which is a disappointing first-round pitcher coming off arm surgery. The rumor is that they’re accumulating capital to make some major plays in the international market. I’m dubious. I don’t see Liberty Media — the cheapskates owners who wrecked the dynasty — shelling out for the top-tier talent.
It was the Heyward trade was the watershed for me — an awful echo of the Len Barker trade. The Braves traded away their most popular player — a young talent who is still years away from his prime — for the ultimate bag of magic beans: a young pitcher. And the language surrounding the trade was even more disheartening. The Braves talked about “years of control” — i.e., how many more years they have before the players reach free agency. They talked about how they’re building for 2017, when their stadium opens. They talked about how they were trying to get out from under some bad contracts.
I understand the theory behind all that. The problem is that these are the things said by loser organizations. Loser organizations are always rebuilding, always aiming to contend a few years from now, always worried about years-of-control and payroll implications. Smart teams worry about those things too but they also know how to hold onto their best players and how to build a team that will contend, full stop, not just in some nebulous future window. They don’t trade away almost all of their on-base skills for minor league scraps and pitchers with injury risks. They don’t trade away talented young players and sign older less-talented players to replace them. They don’t look at the team that kept runs off the board better than almost anyone last year but couldn’t string three hits together and think their real need is mawr pitching.
The Braves aren’t some ancient team at the end of a great run trading away their aging stars. They were one of the youngest teams in the majors with some of their best players locked up long term. This isn’t the Red Sox rebuilding when their stars all aged overnight. This is like the Royals tearing up their young team two years before those players took them to the World Series.
(And it’s made worse by the signing of Nick Markakis to a 4-year deal. Markakis is six years older than Heyward. He’s four years older than Upton. And he’s not nearly as good as either of them. The Braves outfield has gotten older while shedding all of its on-base skills, all of its power and all of its defense. This is not how you build a team that will contend three years from now. This is how you become the Marlins.)
Looking at the destruction of a good team, the trading away of good young players for scraps, the obsession over payroll (for an organization awash in money), I can’t help but think of the bad old days when the Braves would trade away Brett Butler and sign Ken Oberkfell, when they’d break Pascual Perez and trade for Danny Heep or Ozzie Virgil, when they talked excitedly about potentially signing the remnants of an aging Jim Rice. Yesterday’s Upton trade simply confirmed my suspicions. The Braves are no longer a serious organization. They had a team that could have contended when they opened their new stadium. Now they don’t.
I’m probably being overly bitter and pessimistic. But I’m dubious that this team will contend anytime in the next five years and I’m certain they will not approach anything like a dynasty as long as Liberty Media are in charge. They’re simply too cheap and too stupid to build the kind of powerhouse they used to be known for.
No, we’re heading back to the bad old days when the Braves were the joke of the National League. And with the Hawks still unserious and the Falcons “contending” at 5-9, I fear that the days of Loserville have returned.
Addendum: Braves’ apologists are saying this team couldn’t afford to keep Upton and Heyward. This is garbage. Uggla’s contract comes off the books next year. And the Braves’ organization has a revenue stream of $253 million. They could easily pay those two outfielders $40 million a year and not break a sweat. This is just an excuse from a cheapskate owner.