12/17/2002 6:51 pm ET
Busy Braves revamp rotation
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- Just before Christmas time last year, Braves general manager John Schuerholz opted not to include John Burkett in his plans for the 2002 season.
His decision not to keep a capable right-hander, who had just recently completed an All-Star campaign, further raised eyebrows when he filled the spot in the rotation by obtaining Albie Lopez, a man who had lost 19 games during the previous season. The decision may not have been wise, but the Braves were still able to compile 101 wins while winning their 11th consecutive division title.
This year, Schuerholz's main concern has been finding arms that will allow his organization to take its decade-long success much closer to the next decade. It appears he may have found what he was seeking when on Tuesday it was announced that he had landed both 27-year-old right-hander Russ Ortiz and 32-year-old right-hander Paul Byrd.
"We feel very good about acquiring two quality pitchers like Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz," Schuerholz said. "We have made it our focus to strengthen our pitching staff."
The announcement of Byrd's signing came approximately five hours after it was announced that the Braves had acquired Ortiz for Damian Moss and a minor league pitcher. Byrd will earn $3 million for the 2003 season and has a $7 million option for 2004.
It was a day that brought joy to both the Braves and the Byrd family, which resides in the Atlanta area. The hurler turned down more lucrative offers from a number of other teams, including the Phillies, who were the front-runners until John Smoltz, Bobby Cox and Schuerholz all made recruiting calls to Byrd on Monday night.
"As many of you know, we have made many changes to our pitching staff over the last few days," Schuerholz said. "It's a very strong staff and gets even stronger with Paul coming back to us."
Byrd, who served as the Braves fifth starter for part of the 1997 season, told his agent, Bo McKinnis throughout the free agent process that he wanted to play in Atlanta again.
"This was always our first choice," Byrd said. "You know baseball is funny. You play in the minors and then if you are lucky enough to play six years, you have a chance to decide where you want to play. Even then, every team doesn't always want you. So this is great when you have the opportunity to play where you want."
During this offseason, it's been apparent that Schuerholz's pre-Christmas shopping spree has provided him an even greater challenge. He evaluated ways to keep Braves fixtures Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux and at the same time, had to make sure that his choice or choices weren't going to handicap his ability to build another championship-caliber team.
Over the last 24 hours, Schuerholz appears to have actually made his highly acclaimed rotation even stronger, even if it isn't going to include the names of Maddux and Glavine. More importantly, he has done it in a financially savvy manner that further proves why he may be one of the shrewdest baseball administrators ever.
"I'm not sure exactly what they are going to do to make sure we've got a good staff again next year," Kevin Millwood said two days after Glavine opted to shun the Braves and sign with the Mets. "But we have confidence in whatever they choose to do."
There were thoughts last week that Schuerholz was seriously going to pursue a trade with the Expos that would bring either Javier Vazquez or Bartolo Colon to the Braves. But instead of shipping a wealthy amount of young talent to Canada, Schuerholz has found a more economical way to build an experienced and talented rotation that even without its well-known Cy Young Award winners, could still be the best in the National League.
Tuesday's acquisitions of Byrd and Ortiz seem to indicate that the Braves are ready to end their pursuit of Maddux, who has until Thursday to accept the Braves arbitration offer. But Schuerholz is not ready to confirm that assumption.
"No one is out of the equation," Schuerholz said. "These moves don't necessarily impact anything else that we are doing. That may happen on its own. We have a few more days until that process unfolds completely. But these moves don't impact that.
"The point being made is as we reconstructure our team with the likes of Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz, we know our starting pitching is going to be strong. We are very confident in that."
Byrd, who signed a two-year deal worth approximately $5 million per year, gained plenty of attention while being the winning pitcher in 17 of the Royals' 62 wins last season. His 1.5 walks per nine innings last year prove that he remains the control-type pitcher the Braves have always coveted.
The same can't be said for Damian Moss, who was shipped to the Giants in exchange for Ortiz on Tuesday morning. While Moss recently completed his impressive rookie season, he still couldn't shed the label as being a talented pitcher, who sometimes has trouble finding the strike zone.
"I told John I don't know how he pulled off the Ortiz deal," Byrd said. "The way I look at it is, 'Do we have Randy Johnson on our staff? No. But we have four number one and number two starters and with the offense they have and defense they have, you just have to hold the fort down."
Ortiz, who had an ERA under 3.00 for the final two months of the 2002 season, and Byrd combined with the likes of Millwood, who had a successful rebirth last year, and Hampton, who hopes to find renewed success with the Braves, would all serve as one of the top two pitchers on most Major League teams. Now, Braves manager Bobby Cox has the enviable task of constructing the top four spots in his rotation.
"The way I see it is that Bobby is going to have a lot of really good choices to make," Schuerholz said. "However it shapes up, it's going to be really competitive from top to bottom."
It's not as if last year's staff that led the Majors in ERA wasn't strong. But there's no guarantee that Moss was going to find the same success again and no guarantee just how long Maddux and Glavine can continue to produce in the Hall of Fame manner that they have throughout their careers.
But with what he has done, Schuerholz has guaranteed that he will have a talented and more than capable young staff, whose combined salaries will be more than $10 million cheaper than that of last year's staff. In fact, it appears the Braves starting rotation may actually cost less (approximately $20 million) than the $21.5 million the Braves paid simply for Maddux and Glavine last year.
Maddux and Glavine have been very responsible for the enormous amount of success the Braves have enjoyed in the recent past. Thus, they are very responsible for the reason Byrd, Hampton and Ortiz all look forward to the opportunity of being part of the new-look Braves rotation.
"I woke up this morning and I knew this is the place I wanted to be," Byrd said. "It's great for me personally plus I get a chance to pitch in the World Series and win a World Series. I feel like I got my cake and got to eat it too."
If that World Series wish becomes a reality, Schuerholz's impressive pre-Christmas shopping spree will have to be remembered as one of his finest.
Mark Bowman covers the Braves for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its