At the end of May 1988, the Atlanta Braves were 16-31. The city was used to watching the team fail. Since moving to Atlanta in 1966, the Braves had been in the post-season only two times, 1969 and 1982, and were quickly dispatched, even with teams that had MVP winning players on the teams. In fact, the Braves had only eight seasons with winning records in the 22 years they’d been in Atlanta.
In 1988, the Braves finished the season with a 54-106 record, 39.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, who went on to win the World Series that season. The Braves were still an interesting team, though. Dale Murphy, my childhood hero, began to show signs of decline. The year before, the Murph hit a solid .295, belted 44 home runs, and drove in 105 runs. It was arguably his best season, perhaps even better than his MVP seasons in 1982 and 1983. By 1988, he was a different hitter, as his numbers dropped across the board.
Still, even without its best player at the top of his game, the team had a few different promising prospects. Ron Gant found his was into the starting lineup, finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke made appearances in the majors that year. Though he wasn’t a young prospect, Lonnie Smith was on this team as well. Tom Glavine was just beginning his career, having started only nine games the prior season, and John Smoltz got the ball to start 12 games in 1988.
Murphy, of course, was traded to Philadelphia in 1990, but each of the other players mentioned above played an integral role in the Braves’ 1991 National League Championship team, which was the start of the franchise’s 14 consecutive division championships, excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season. Bobby Cox was one of the keys to the Braves’ eventual success. He’d rejoined the team in 1986 as general manager and began drafting talent and developing prospects in the minors, including Steve Avery, David Justice, and Chipper Jones – players who would become synonymous with the “team of the 90s.”
Another key to the Braves’ success was John Schuerholz, who was brought to Atlanta from Kansas City to rebuild the team. He brought Greg Maddux, who had just won his first of four consecutive Cy Young Awards, to Atlanta from the Chicago Cubs and, with the talent Cox had already built in the farm system, brought other prospects and made key trades that led to the 1995 World Championship.
Things, however, have changed. Through tonight, the Braves are 7-24, including only one win at Turner Field. (You read that right.) It’s doubtful they’ll top the May 1988 win/loss mark. Currently, Atlanta is on pace to lose 134 games. Sure, it’s still early in the season, but if things don’t change, the Braves would easily set a record for the worst season in the modern era. One has to go back to the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics to find a team this bad. Actually, the Braves would still be worse because the Athletics’ winning percentage was .235. If the Braves remain on their current trajectory, they would have a .172 winning percentage.
How did we get here? It’s a combination of Frank Wren’s bad trades and poor free agents signings and Liberty Media’s ownership.
During the course of Wren’s tenure as the Braves’ general manager he signed Kenshin Kawakami, who spent parts of two years in Atlanta and one season at Double-A Mississippi; Derek Lowe, who was so bad the Braves ate $10 million just to get him off the club; and B.J. Upton, who, for some reason, thought changing his name would help Braves’ fans forget how absolutely horrible he was in Atlanta. Wren also traded for Dan Uggla, to whom the Braves owed $18 million when they released him and paid $78,000 to hit a game-winning home run when he was with the Washington Nationals.
Thankfully, Wren is gone. Now, we have John Hart and John Coppolella running the show. They’re making moves similar to those that Cox and Schuerholz made to bring in prospects and develop them in the minors before eventually bringing them to Atlanta. But this will take time.
Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, deserves a lot of blame. Braves’ owners have never invested in player salaries like George Steinbrenner did with the New York Yankees. Atlanta ranked in the top three in payrolls only once, in 2003, when the team spent $106,243,667, or $139,522,136 in 2015 dollars. This year, the payroll is $86,696,084, which puts the Braves near the bottom.
The catch with this, though, is that the active payroll – that is, paying players who are actually on the team – is $66,037,561. That figure includes the $4 million owed to Hector Olivera, who is currently suspended with pay, and the $1.25 million to Emilio Bonifacio, who was released in the spring and re-signed. The Braves are paying $16.8 million to players who aren’t on the team, including Michael Bourn, Cameron Maybin, and Nick Swisher. After taking away the salaries paid to players no longer with the team, the Braves have the lowest payroll in Major League Baseball.
Growing up, I was a baseball fanatic. I still love the game, but I haven’t watched the Braves all season. It’s too depressing. Ownership and team executives expect fans to show up to watch the equivalent of a Triple-A team get their asses handed to them almost every night. Some are quick to point the finger at Fredi Gonzalez, but he’s playing with the hand he was dealt.
The assumption is that things will change when the team moves into SunTrust Park next year. Yeah, I’m not buying that. Liberty Media hasn’t allowed the team to spend a lot of money on free agents. Even with a new stadium, is that likely to change?
Hart and Coppolella have managed to acquire a lot of talent for the players we have traded, but player development takes time and not every prospect we’ve received will be ready in 2017. It took the Braves three years after a 100-loss season to fully rebuild and find success. It’s likely to take as long to find similar results. Unless Liberty Media is willing to let the team spend money next year, much like they expect taxpayers to shell out money for SunTrust Field, we may be better than the product on the field now, but we’ll still have a mediocre club.