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In the Big Picture, Braves Have the Big Pitchers

May 25, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

Do I have this right?

Some major league owners are concerned that Rupert Murdoch, if approved as new owner of the Dodgers, could blow out baseball's salary structure trying to buy a winner and create an attraction for his global television networks.

Questions: Hasn't the salary structure already been blown? What more can Murdoch do that major league owners haven't already done?

The Cleveland Indians, who have had 153 consecutive sellouts at Jacobs Field, shook the foundations again this week, guaranteeing $81 million to David Justice, Marquis Grissom and Jim Thome, each of whom already had a year or an option left on a multiyear contract.

Then the Atlanta Braves, who are expected to gross more than $100 million at new Turner Field this year, plunged an additional $34 million into another of their vaunted starting pitchers, Tom Glavine. That makes about $82 million that the Braves have invested in Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle in the last six months, with Greg Maddux, who is eligible for free agency after the season, still to come and his agent, Scott Boras, already laying out familiar shtick and predicting that Maddux could get $14 million a year on the open market.

"Pitching has been the cornerstone of our success and we'll do everything we fiscally can to maintain that," Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz said.

Tough to argue with success. The Braves have won five division titles in the last six years and National League pennants in four of those five.

They came into the Memorial Day weekend at Dodger Stadium--the first of the holiday signposts en route to the October playoffs--with a baseball-best 32-13 record, a pace that projects to 115 wins and buries the Florida Marlins, who spent about $89 million on free agents last winter in an attempt to catch the Braves in the NL East.

"For six or seven weeks, this is the best team we've had," Schuerholz said. "That's better said in reflection at the end of the season, but to this point it's been our best."

The Braves knew what was coming, knew after re-signing Smoltz, their Cy Young Award winning pitcher of last year, and Neagle, acquired in the Pittsburgh clearance sales last July and now 7-0, that they still had to re-sign Glavine and Maddux.

And they knew, or believed, that to accomplish that they had to establish some payroll flexibility, which is why they traded the hefty salaries of Justice and Grissom to the Indians for center fielder Kenny Lofton and relief pitcher Alan Embree.

"There were two parts to it," Schuerholz said. "We off-loaded salary and acquired the preeminent leadoff hitter and one of baseball's finest center fielders [in Lofton]."

It was a trade made in what Schuerholz calls lock step with a transaction that sent right-handed hitting outfielder Jermaine Dye to the Kansas City Royals for the fleet, left-handed hitting outfielder Michael Tucker, who has combined with Lofton to provide slash and dash at the top of the lineup.

In addition, Embree has helped improve bullpen depth, and Keith Lockhart, acquired with Tucker, has helped improve the bench.

"A lot of people scratched their heads and wondered what we were doing, but I think our record is the best reflection of how the team has reacted to the trades," Schuerholz said.

"We still have power, but we now have the speed to create runs, and our pitching has been as good as ever, maybe better."

At 32-13 coming into the weekend, the Braves were three games better than their 1996 pace. They had hit 19 fewer home runs but had stolen 19 more bases. And the staff earned-run average of 2.68, baseball's best, was slightly better than last year's 2.72.

"It's a different team now," first baseman Fred McGriff said. "We have a lot more speed. Our new park plays large. It's not like Fulton County Stadium. We need that speed and pitching to win."

Lofton, who is also eligible for free agency at the end of the year and poses another major payroll problem for the Braves, came into the Dodger series with a .364 average and the league lead in hits. He was tied for second in runs and was third in stolen bases and ninth in on-base percentage.

Two other Braves, right fielder Tucker (.335) and shortstop Jeff Blauser (.373), ranked in the top 10 in hitting, with Blauser's reemergence after two years of injuries providing a solid contribution from the No. 8 spot.

Still, it's pitching that distinguishes the Braves, and Glavine's contract, which calls for an average annual value of $8.5 million, the highest ever for a pitcher, is reflective of the fact that he started the season as the major league's top winner since 1991. He had 111 victories, one more than Maddux. It's also reflective of the fact he had made 137 consecutive starts before a bruised hand forced him to miss one recently.

The remarkable durability of the Atlanta rotation, Schuerholz noted, allows the Braves to buy insurance for their major contracts.

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