Smoltz opts for Plan “B”, as in Boston…
As he did so many times as an All-Star stopper, John Smoltz closed the door on Thursday. This time, however, it was on his career with the Atlanta Braves. In many ways, it signals the end of an era and has become a lightning rod for the frustrations experienced by the Braves this winter.
Unable to reach a trade for Jake Peavy, shunned by A.J. Burnett and forced to endure an embarrassing turn of events with Rafael Furcal, this off-season has been truly forgettable. The ire of Braves fans has been hard to miss, boiling over with the loss of Smoltz, a once unimaginable scenario. On Monday, fans from Red Sox Nation will see their newest acquisition introduced in a press conference. And Braves fans will see Smoltz don a new hat with a “B” rather than the classic script “A” he has worn since 1988.
Smoltz was limited to just six appearances in 2008 and could be 42 before he throws his first pitch for the Red Sox. Boston is spending $5.5 million to bring the winningest pitcher in post-season history into the fray for what will likely be another October run in Beantown. What’s more is that they do not expect him to take the mound until around June 1, giving him incentives that are essentially pro-rated so that he could easily earn up to another $5 million. This is a luxury spending for a man who could make a big impact.
Atlanta’s best offer of roughly $2-2.5 million with incentives could have reached $10 million according to CEO Terry McGuirk, who was “shocked” by Smoltz’s departure. Atlanta’s incentives included one rather large caveat of $5 million if Smoltz were to surpass 200 innings, but nothing for any other innings marker. In other words, the Braves were looking for Smoltz, remember at 42, to be the same pitcher he was at age 40 when he threw 205.2 innings in 2007. Even for Smoltz, that seems like a tall order coming off the shoulder surgery. Without the 200 innings logged, Atlanta’s offer would only match the guaranteed portion of his Boston contract at best.
That offer may have been too little too late, since Smoltz was hoping his early December throwing session would be all the proof Atlanta would need that his health was on track to expedite negotiations. That was a month ago. Atlanta made the offer they felt was appropriate for a player of Smoltz’s age and recent injury history. Despite nearly two months to get Smoltz under contract, the two sides never approached a middle ground on the terms.
Smoltz, who was not planning to comment on the deal until it was complete, issued a statement on Thursday afternoon through agents at Career Sports & Entertainment to eliminate the possibility that anything resembling the disastrous wake of the Furcal negotiations could happen again:
“There were large discrepancies between the offer from the Braves and offers from other teams,” said Smoltz in the statement. “I have always loved the city of Atlanta, and it will always be my
home. I will cherish my 21 years with
Bobby Cox and all my Braves teammates. I continue to wish the Atlanta
Braves nothing but success in the future.”
His loss leaves a void that will be felt from the clubhouse, to the stands of Turner Field, to living rooms of Braves fans across the country and in the community he leaves behind. Smoltz has soldiered on for years in Atlanta. taking less money at times, moving to the bullpen, moving back to the rotation and doing everything and seemingly anything else that was asked of him over a 21-year career.
In the end, General Manager Frank Wren said it came down to the Braves not wanting to rest their hopes on an aging star pitcher with a surgically repaired right shoulder. Even a phone call from Cox could not change Smoltz’s mind. Boston showed an earnest interest and got their man with a better deal than Atlanta could offer.
This is a public relations nightmare for a club that is struggling to re-assert itself in the race for the National League East next season. Atlanta has built much of its marketing over the past decade and a half in part or almost completely around Smoltz, the final player who remained from the Worst-to-First ’91 squad.
They have also given Smoltz all the fodder he will need to use as motivation to prove he can still perform at a very high level. Pitching in the American League East in a heightened rivalry with the new look New York Yankees will provide opportunities for Smoltz to pitch in the big game environment, where he has thrived over his career. Boston fans should be licking their chops to have a pitcher with Smoltz resume on board in a pennant race.
While there may be no doubt about Smoltz being enshrined in Cooperstown wearing a Braves hat, it will certainly be odd to see him pitching for the Red Sox. Meanwhile, the Braves certainly have their work cut out for them in 2009.
Till next time,