An Atlanta Braves pitching staff that was 11-3 with a 2.70 ERA in 1995 postseason play and already considered baseball's best, got stronger with the addition of Pittsburgh's Denny Neagle, 27-14 with the generally hapless Pirates over the last two years and the National League's winningest left-hander in 1996.
The Braves gave up a legitimate prospect in power-hitting first baseman Ron Wright along with rookie right-hander Jason Schmidt, who opened the season as Atlanta's No. 5 starter and makes his Pittsburgh debut today.
But who can argue with Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz?
"Pittsburgh did themselves well, but we got exactly the guy we need," Schuerholz said.
"It makes us far stronger going into the postseason and far stronger for next season."
Dealing from the strength of a productive farm system, Schuerholz has annually restocked the Braves. In a summer of major injuries, including Dave Justice, Jeff Blauser and Steve Avery, his recent additions alone include Neagle, Terry Pendleton and Luis Polonia, along with the promising Jermaine Dye and Andruw Jones out of the system.
If the development of Jones and Dye leads to a decision to trade Justice, Neagle's acquisition probably ends Avery's Atlanta career. Since May 10, 1994, Avery is 17-23 and has gone beyond the sixth inning in only 30 of 64 starts. He has been sidelined seven weeks because of a pulled rib cage muscle, which is not to say the Braves aren't trying to get him back on the mound, a potential reliever in the playoffs, but his left-handed availability isn't nearly as imperative with the addition of Neagle.
Avery also won a nasty arbitration at $4.2 million last spring, and given the choice, the Braves seem likely to put their free agent resources into John Smoltz.
Said Schuerholz, when asked if Avery would be back: "I have no idea. He's going to be a free agent. We have no control over him."
The motives of new Pirate owner Kevin McClatchy aren't clear. He has said he wants to start a rebuilding process shaped around young players that will bring the Pirates to a championship level by the time they move into a new ballpark near the turn of the century. Many suspect that Pittsburgh will never deliver on a new park. They insist McClatchy knows it and is merely trying to gut the payroll until he can move, possibly to Charlotte.
A $21-million payroll was expected to go to $24 million next year, but there is instability in the ownership structure. One initial investor has pulled out, taking his original $5 million. Others may follow. McClatchy has ordered the payroll cut to $18 million.
Neagle was the first to go, then Charlie Hayes, acquired by the Yankees on Friday. Orlando Merced, Jay Bell and Jeff King could follow.
Manager Jim Leyland, who has been through this before, isn't happy but says he will stay, honoring a $1-million-a-year contract that runs through 2000.
There is no escape clause, but McClatchy, given his current financial agenda, would certainly allow Leyland to dump that lucrative contract if he changed his mind.
League sources continued to say Saturday that despite Leyland's denials, there is a strong chance he will move to the Florida Marlins next year.
He once worked with General Manager Dave Dombrowski with the Chicago White Sox and is a golfing buddy of owner Wayne Huizenga, whose deep pockets have to be attractive to Leyland after 11 years of payroll deprivation in Pittsburgh.
Of the latest developments, Leyland said:
"No question there's a lot of chaos here right now. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't confusion and chaos."
NAMES AND NUMBERS
--Tom Keegan of the New York Post, while interviewing Davey Lopes on his experiences coaching under new Met Manager Bobby Valentine when both were with the Texas Rangers, offered the opinion that Valentine seemed genuinely humbled by his subsequent managerial tours in the minors and Japan.
Responded Lopes, "Until you just said that, I had never heard the word humility associated with Bobby Valentine. If he's learned that, it will make him a better manager in his working relationship with people around him."
--Alleged to have lost the young Mets with his candid criticisms, fired manager Dallas Green said, "Certainly that bothers me. I raised four kids of my own. I raised 10 a year for the Phillies [as farm director]. . . . Discipline and honesty shouldn't be pushed aside so we can make it Pollyanna. The hard truth about major league baseball is that it's a very difficult profession. All I was trying to do was bring the work ethic into focus."
--The Cleveland Indians became only the fifth American League team to sweep a season series in a non-strike year when they defeated the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night and finished 12-0 against Detroit.
Winning pitcher Orel Hershiser clearly had tongue in cheek when he said, "There was actually a lot of pressure on me. I didn't want to go to old-timers' games and have guys say, 'Yeah, we won the World Series that year but you were the only pitcher who couldn't beat Detroit.' "
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Seven players have hit 20 or more home runs for the Baltimore Orioles this season, breaking the record set by the 1961 New York Yankees. With the addition of Eddie Murray and Todd Zeile in recent trades, the Orioles can field a lineup of nine batters with 20 or more home runs. A look at the players who accumulated their home run totals with the Orioles, as compared to the 1961 Yankees:
Brady Anderson: 41
Rafael Palmeiro: 31
Chris Hoiles: 23
Bobby Bonilla: 22
Cal Ripken Jr.: 21
Roberto Alomar: 20
B.J. Surhoff: 20
Roger Maris: 61
Mickey Mantle: 54
Bill Skowron: 28
Yogi Berra: 22
Elston Howard: 21
Johnny Blanchard: 21