We've heard a lot about the kind of team Stan Kasten promises, based on his experience with Atlanta: be patient, build with the ground up, go with youth.
Is that what exactly happened in Atlanta? Is it close to reality? I can't say; at the time (from the mid/late-80s to the early-90s, I followed the Braves . . . but more so the Richmond Braves, my hometown team. I rooted for the R-Braves and saw a lot of their talent, but my inclination was to regard most of their players as something special. I had a bias.
So I'm no expert on the subject---I was young and wore a foam finger for a Triple-A team. Thus, I think it's instructive for my own purposes to review the record of transactions during the various stages the Atlanta organization journeyed in its path from mediocrity, to utter mess, to surprise pennant winner, to league-wide dynasty. What were the substance of the transactions? Were there common patterns?
One way to find some answers is to look at the transactions themselves, and for this purpose, I will refer to BaseballReference.com. I haven't hyperlinked every player traded or traded away, signed or released; that would take too long. You are welcome to search any of these players at the aforementioned website, except for the guys designated "Minors."
I've provided short summaries of every transaction. To be honest, these are mainly for my own benefit, as I haven't thought of most of these players in a long time but readily recall them by name. But maybe you'll find some insight, too. Along the way, I have characterized some of the transactions with my opinion on their wisdom---or lack thereof. As this thread at Oleanders & Morning Glories demonstrates, reasonable people can disagree on characterizations. That's fine, too.
You might be wondering about a timeframe. Glad you asked. Kasten took over as Braves' president in 1987, but I'm going to start farther back than that; in fact, I'm going to start in October 1985, when Bobby Cox returned to Atlanta as general manager. The date makes sense to me, as it marks the turning point of the franchise, the outset of the Cox/Schuerholz/Kasten years.
Anyway, this post is going to be long, longer than usual. Consequently, I have chopped it up, with much of it falling after the "Read More" prompt.
This post will cover 1985-87. The next one will cover '88-89. And so forth. But, for now, away we go:
November 12, 1985: Released Dave Schuler.
Inconsequential. Schuler has an odd record. He made his big league debut in 1979, pitched a bit in 1980---then didn't pitch in the majors until 1985 with the Braves. (Arm problems? Any Schuler experts know?) Finished his MLB career with a sweet 17/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but surrendered 34 hits and eight homers in 25 innings.
November 13, 1985: Released Randy Johnson.
No, not the Big Unit---although a Diamonbacks-related ad graces his BaseballReference.com page. This Randy Johnson was an infielder and a decent OBP guy. Got about 300 plate appearances for the Braves in 1984, wasn't bad, but never played again in the majors.
November 15, 1985: Signed Cliff Speck as a free agent.
Vague recollection of him pitching for Richmond. Speck made it into 13 games, including a lone start, as a 30-year-old rookie for Atlanta in 1986. Wasn't bad, but was pretty wild. Never pitched again in the majors.
November 19, 1985: Signed Ron Tingley as a free agent.
Defense-first backup catcher, terrible hitter. Played nine seasons in the bigs between 1982-95, but never for the Braves. Also known as John Orton.
December 4, 1985: Signed Dave Beard as a free agent.
Veteran pitcher, though only age 26 at the of signing. Was nominal closer for Oakland in 1982-83, leading team in saves with 11 and 10, respectively. Never pitched for Atlanta, made a short comeback attempt with Detroit in 1989.
December 6, 1985: Traded Miguel Sosa (minors) to the New York Yankees. Received Bill Sample.
No idea about Sosa; never appeared in the majors. Sample was a veteran outfielder on the downslide. Received 200 at-bats for Atlanta in '86, but never played again. Went on to become a broadcaster; haven't seen much of him lately.
December 10, 1985: Traded Steve Bedrosian and Milt Thompson to the Philadelphia Phillies. Received Ozzie Virgil and Pete Smith.
Big trade. Bedrock, who had just turned 28, was a bullpen mainstay from 1982-84, a mediocre and hard-luck starter in '85 (7-15, 100 ERA+). Thompson was a 26-year-old outfielder, had hit .300 in about 300 plate appearances in '84-85. Virgil was a 29-year-old catcher, pretty good offensively since becoming a full-timer in '84 (112, 109 ERA+), NL all-star in '85. Smith was 19, a first round pick in '84.
Trade is hard to evaluate in retrospect, because Bedrosian became a top reliever for several years (including a Cy Young Award-by-default in '87) and Thompson was a reasonably productive fourth outfielder for the next decade. Virgil hit 27 homers in the big homer year of '87, but was otherwise a zero for the Braves. Smith had gone 12-10, 3.29 in 1985 at Class-A+ Clearwater. Awful strikeout rate and control, though. Smith was highly regarded in the late '80s, but the record doesn't leave much residue why. (Nor does his MLB record: 30-48 with Atlanta, 47-71 overall.) Trade looks like an early "build with pitching" move; for fleeting moment in 1992 (7-0 in pennant race stretch drive), Smith finally made good.
December 26, 1985: Signed Kelly Heath as a free agent.
Second baseman, never played for Atlanta. Moonlight Graham, except with an actual at-bat (for Kansas City in '84).
January, 1986: Signed Bob Long as a free agent.
Pitcher. Never played for Atlanta.
January 14, 1986: Drafted Kevin Brown in the 1st round (2nd pick) of the 1986 amateur draft (Secondary Phase). Drafted Jorge Pedre in the 11th round of the 1986 amateur draft, but did not sign the player.
Not the Kevin Brown you're thinking of (though that one pitched at Georgia Tech). This one was a bit pitcher in the early '90s. Pedre had cups of coffee with the Royals and Cubs.
February 13, 1986: Signed David Palmer as a free agent.
Actual signing of note. Palmer was a hot-shot rookie for the Expos in '79 (10-2, 2.64), injury-prone thereafer. Had healthy season with Atlanta in '86 (11-10, 3.65 in career-high 209 IP), went 8-11 in '87, then 7-9 for Phillies in '88, then '03 for Detroit in '89, then done.
Was sort of staff ace for '86 Braves. (Rick Mahler pitched far more innings but had an 82 ERA+ and surrendered 378 baserunners in 237 innings pitched.)
March 5, 1986: Traded Rick Cerone, David Clay (minors), and Flavio Alfaro (minors) to the Milwaukee Brewers. Received Ted Simmons.
Cerone was an aging catcher who almost done, Simmons was an old-aged catcher/1B/3B who was even more done. Pointless trade, but Cerone's loss didn't hurt, although he stuck around quite a bit longer than Simmons.
April 1, 1986: Released Len Barker. Released Rick Camp. Released Terry Forster. Signed Omar Moreno as a free agent. Released Pascual Perez.
Barker was dreck (and a reminder of a horrific trade in '83). Camp was done. Forster was a tub of goo, released after seasons of 2.16, 2.70, 2.28 ERAs for Atlanta. Moreno had a sub-Moreno (.276 OBP) last hurrah for Braves. Perez was a head case (1-13, 6.14 in '85, bad at finding his way to the ballpark), but a 28-year-old head case and experienced a revival in Montreal; cashed in with Yankees but hardly ever pitched. Sure beat working.
April 2, 1986: Traded Mike Santiago (minors) to the New York Mets. Received Ed Olwine.
Olwine was a proto-LOOGY for Atlanta, '86-88. Always liked his name.
April 4, 1986: Signed Jose Alvarez as a free agent.
One of my favorites. Received cups of coffee with Atlanta in '81-82, bounced around, still qualified as a 32-year-old rookie in 1988. Had 2.99 ERA in 102 innings; followed up with 2.86 ERA in '89, but never pitched again. A bit wild, but tough to hit.
May 21, 1986: Signed Matt Turner as an amateur free agent.
Debuted with Florida in the 1993 expansion year. Diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in early '94; never pitched again.
June 2, 1986: Drafted Kent Mercker in the 1st round (5th pick) of the 1986 amateur draft. Drafted Mike Bell in the 4th round of the 1986 amateur draft. Drafted Steve Finley in the 11th round of the 1986 amateur draft, but did not sign the player. Drafted Tim Salmon in the 18th round of the 1986 amateur draft, but did not sign the player. Drafted Ben McDonald in the 27th round of the 1986 amateur draft, but did not sign the player. Drafted Jim Czajkowski in the 29th round of the 1986 amateur draft.
Good value that got away, huh?
Mercker was consistently good for Atlanta, but was generally overshadowed, first by the other hotshot young relievers (Stanton and Wohlers, primarily) and then by the frontline starters. Career fell apart after leaving Atlanta, but he's still chugging. Czajkowski pitched briefly for the Rockies in '94.
June 19, 1986: Signed Rusty Richards as an amateur free agent. Released Ron Tingley.
Richards was a lesser-tier pitching prospect. I recall him pitching for Richmond, but his Baseball Cube page doesn't reflect it.
June 30, 1986: Traded Claudell Washington and Paul Zuvella to the New York Yankees. Received Ken Griffey and Andre Robertson.
Retrospectively-humorous, pseudo-challenge trade involving two aging outfielders and two organizational filler middle infielders. Papa Griffey was okay for Atlanta in '87, Washington was pretty good for the Yankees in '88.
July 6, 1986: Traded Joe Johnson to the Toronto Blue Jays. Received Jim Acker. Traded Duane Ward to the Toronto Blue Jays. Received Doyle Alexander.
Not two separate trade between the same teams on the same day, I'm assuming. Doyle Alexander giveth (John Smoltz in '87), but he also taketh away: "Psycho" Ward was a wider-than-hell reliever who apprenticed under Tom Henke (averaging better tha a dozen saves per season) in Toronto before becoming lights-out closer in '93. Could have been the closer the Braves needed in '92, but I suppose that would have cost Smoltz---not a very good trade-off.
Johnson actually won 13 games in '86, but was done by the next season. Acker was a marginal reliever who had a very nice '89 season, returning to Toronto in time for the stretch drive.
August 15, 1986: Released Matt Sinatro.
The ultimate hanger-on catcher. Played ten big league seasons between 1981-92, never with even 100 at-bats in a single one. Always imagine he'd sing well.
September 23, 1986: Traded Steve Shields to the Kansas City Royals. Received Darryl Motley.
I remember Shields pitching for Richmond; probably why I thought he was good when he was included in the Danny Tartabull-Scott Bankhead trade before '87. Had career year (of sorts) for the Yankees in '88, pitching 82 innings with a 4.37 ERA.
Motley was 27, a contributor for the Royals in '84 and a key part of the '85 World Series. Had 18 at-bats with Atlanta betwen '86-87 and was done.
September 27, 1986: Signed Eddie Perez as an amateur free agent.
Yes, that Eddie Perez, the 1999 NLCS MVP. Didn't even debut for Atlanta until '95; as the Heinz commercial used to go, the best things come to those who wait. (Well, maybe some useful things is more like it.)
October 13, 1986: Released Omar Moreno. Released Mike Payne.
That 72-89 record in '86 wouldn't have been possible without Omar.
October 15, 1986: Dave Beard granted Free Agency. Larry Owen granted Free Agency. John Rabb granted Free Agency.
Owen and Rabb both played in Richmond. It's funny how our memories work; I haven't thought of Larry Ownen in almost twenty years, and my first thought was "catcher."
October 16, 1986: Released Chris Cron.
Not even a bit player in the early '90s. I confuse this guy with former prospect Chris Colon. I think this one is a minor league manager now.
November 12, 1986: Doyle Alexander granted Free Agency. Chris Chambliss granted Free Agency. Bob Horner granted Free Agency. David Palmer granted Free Agency. Bill Sample granted Free Agency.
Lots of guys granted free agency. Is Chambliss still considered a managerial prospect? What happened with that?
November 15, 1986: Signed Ben Rivera as an amateur free agent.
One of the interesting things when doing a project like this is noting how long it takes for a guy who was signed as an 18-year-old to make something of himself. I think of 1986 as a totally different era than 1992 or '93. I was in grade school during the fomer, was driving and applying for colleges during the latter. Anyway, Rivera was traded in midseason '92 to the Phillies for a pitching prospect named Donnie Elliot; was very impressed upon arrival, did a slow burn out of Philly's rotation in '93---marginalized by the point he made one disasterous appearance in the World Series. Was done in by arm problems from there.
Anyway, Rivera did nothing with Atlanta, and neither did Elliot.
November 17, 1986: Signed Trench Davis as a free agent. Signed Chuck Hensley as a free agent. Signed Al Pardo as a free agent.
Isn't Al Pardo the in-house voice announcer of NBC? Anyway, Pardo had an incredible career, and I don't mean that kindly: .132/.152/.171 in 129 at-bats (none with Atlanta). Negative-11 OPS+.
December 8, 1986: Drafted Joe Redfield from the Baltimore Orioles in the 1986 rule V draft.
Never appeared for the Braves.
December 19, 1986: Signed David Palmer as a free agent.
December 20, 1986: Signed Jeff Bittiger as a free agent.
Pitched a bit, mainly for the White Sox, never for Atlanta.
January 20, 1987: Traded Brad Komminsk to the Milwaukee Brewers. Received Dion James.
Oh, the pain. I loved Brad Komminsk when I was a kid. Here was this top prospect, and he played in my city! (I cried when Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby were traded for Len Barker. Of course, I was seven.) Komminsk amounted to nothing, either before or after the deal, although he did once flip over the Memorial Stadium outfield wall while making a catch. That was cool. James was an OBP-rich outfielder with a bad defensive rep. Useful, but traded for Oddibe McDowell in '89. Hit .332 for the Yankees as a two-thirds-timer in '93.
January 23, 1987: Signed Gary Roenicke as a free agent.
Roenicke was really, really done. But he did have a fun "Three True Outcomes" part-time campaign in '87.
January 27, 1987: Traded Terry Harper and Freddy Tiburcio (minors) to the Detroit Tigers. Received Randy O'Neal and Chuck Cary.
Harper was done. Cary sort of emerged as a starter on the abysmal early-'90s Yankees. O'Neal was a bit pitcher.
February 2, 1987: Traded Craig McMurtry to the Toronto Blue Jays. Received Damaso Garcia and Luis Leal.
McMurty burst on the scene as a rookie in '83, but by this point was just goofy-looking. Garcia missed all of '87 and had just 60 at-bats in '88. Leal was done.
February 22, 1987: Signed John Rabb as a free agent.
April 1, 1987: Signed Graig Nettles as a free agent.
Forty-three-years-old and coming off a .218 season. What could go wrong? (Nettles hit .209, but somehow resurfaced for one more season, signing with Montreal for '88.)
April 2, 1987: Traded Joe Redfield to the California Angels. Received Stan Cliburn.
Big trade. Rocked the baseball world.
April 3, 1987: Signed John Mizerock as a free agent.
Like a Rock . . . Triple-A catcher; huge disappointment, considering he was the eighth pick of the '79 draft.
April 4, 1987: Released Jeff Bittiger.
Life went on.
April 5, 1987: Signed Mike Fischlin as a free agent.
A member of Your 1987 Richmond Braves. Had 225 at-bats for the 1983 Indians and laid down 11 sacrifice hits during that time. Projected over a 600 at-bat season, and . . .
April 8, 1987: Signed Mike Brown as a free agent.
Never played for the Braves. Most similar batter through age 28? Dick Williams.
May 5, 1987: Signed Doyle Alexander as a free agent.
That's right: Alexander was the property of the Braves, was granted free agency, and ended up with the Braves the next May. Can you say collusion? Alexander, acting as his own agent, turned down a two-year deal from the Braves and limped back to accept a far less lucrative one. But that's okay, because . . . [see a few entries down].
May 15, 1987: Released Mike Brown.
May 18, 1987: Signed Larry McWilliams as a free agent.
Former Brave, former Pirate. Somehow hung around until 1990.
June 2, 1987: Drafted Derek Lilliquist in the 1st round (6th pick) of the 1987 amateur draft. Drafted Keith Mitchell in the 4th round of the 1987 amateur draft. Drafted Brian Hunter in the 8th round of the 1987 amateur draft. Drafted Mike Stanton in the 13th round of the 1987 amateur draft. Drafted David Nied in the 14th round of the 1987 amateur draft.
Not a bad draft, I guess. Lilliquist was okay as a rookie in 1989, but only as a placeholder for Smoltz and Glavine while they continued to mature. Traded midday through 1990, Lilliquist resurfaced in Cleveland as a lefty specialist. Hunter was a useful platoon first baseman. Mitchell was sent back to Richmond in '93 and developed an attitude problem (go figure; he's the cousin of Kevin). Stanton, as we know, is capable of balking---or not balking. Nied was a hot pitching prospect, the prize of the 1993 expansion draft (other than Nigel Wilson, I suppose). Arm troubles and done.
June 8, 1987: Released Al Pardo.
Great voice, couldn't carry the bat.
June 10, 1987: Signed Dale Polley as an amateur free agent.
Lefty reliever. Made the Triple-A all-star team one year for Richmond; don't ask me how I remember that. Pitched one and only season as a 30/31-year-old rookie for the 1996 Yankees; didn't pitch in the postseason.
July 25, 1987: Traded Randy O'Neal to the St. Louis Cardinals. Received Joe Boever. Released Larry McWilliams.
Boever, master of the palmball, was a useful reliever for the Braves, Phillies, Astros, and Tigers. When he lost it in 1994, though, he really lost it. Braves dealt him in '90 for Marvin Freeman, who made good on the deal in '92.
August 12, 1987: Traded Doyle Alexander to the Detroit Tigers. Received John Smoltz.
Well, here it is. Overly dramatic to say this was the point marking the fall of the Tigers and the rise of the Braves? Probably, but still . . .
A co-worker from Michigan and I were talking about this trade just today. The funny thing is that, for Detroit's purposes, Alexander made good on the immediate purpose of the trade, and spectacularly so. He even won 14 games the following season, though he didn't pitch as well. Bill James wrote a long capsule biography of Alexander in The Baseball Book: 1990. Worth a read.
Did the Braves know what they were getting in Smoltz? I don't know; I was only eleven at the time. The Baseball Cube's stats seem incomplete, but I do recall he was having a rough year at the time of the trade. However, he was excellent at Richmond the following year, and the impression from that point forward was that he was going to be a good one. By this point, the Braves were really starting to stack the minor leagues with pitching talent: Smith, Smoltz, Glavine---even lesser-known guys like Gary Eave seemed promising at the time.
August 31, 1987: Traded Gene Garber to the Kansas City Royals. Received a player to be named later. The Kansas City Royals sent Terry Bell (September 3, 1987) to the Atlanta Braves to complete the trade.
Loved Gene Garber. His delivery was a lot of fun. Sad to see him at the end of the line, though.
September 23, 1987: Signed Phil Niekro as a free agent.
Building for the future. Niekro made his final appearance with the Braves after the signing. Pitched most of the season in Cleveland, which doled out a total of 36 starts to Niekro and Steve Carlton in '87. Combined age: 90 years old.
October, 1987: Released Chuck Hensley.
Career WHIP of under one. In 7.2 innings, of course.
October 15, 1987: Juan Eichelberger granted Free Agency. Darryl Motley granted Free Agency. John Rabb granted Free Agency.
I always loved the name Juan Eichelberger. For his career, he walked 283 batters and registered 281 strikeouts. Yet, he was merely bad, not horrible.
November 6, 1987: Signed Javy Lopez as an amateur free agent.
Sounds like a good move. I'm no author, but if I were ever to write a book, I'd do it on the 1993 Richmond Braves. Look at that roster. Stars: Chipper, Javy, Klesko. Flameouts: Kelly, Nieves, Wohlers. Dead Guy: Oliva. Tarasco, the victim of that punk kid in New York. The manager? Grady Little.
November 9, 1987: Ken Griffey granted Free Agency. Glenn Hubbard granted Free Agency. Graig Nettles granted Free Agency. David Palmer granted Free Agency.
Hubbard was a useful player, a high-OBP type. But his departure cleared the way for a young second baseman named Ron Gant.
November 11, 1987: Traded a player to be named later to the New York Mets. Received Terry Blocker. The Atlanta Braves sent Kevin Brown (December 8, 1987) to the New York Mets to complete the trade.
Blocker was a huge bust; the Mets had made him the fourth pick of the '81 draft. He somehow came to the plate about 200 times for the Braves in '88. Somehow, until you remember the Braves went 54-106.
November 13, 1987: Signed Ken Griffey as a free agent.
The last piece to the puzzle for those '88 Braves.
December 6, 1987: Signed Graig Nettles as a free agent.
No, Griffey was still the last piece---recall Nettles ended up in Montreal.
December 8, 1987: Traded Rafael Ramirez and cash to the Houston Astros. Received Ed Whited and Mike Stoker (minors).
Whited was a big dude, had some pop. Ramirez was something of a joke by this point, a hack-tastic slap hitter who was unbearably erratic at short. His reputation had caught up to his performance. Previously, he had been an all-star in '84 and was, somewhat stunningly, 16th in the NL MVP voting in '83. (He did almost hit .300.) His most similar player at BaseballReference.com is Marty Marion, which is pretty hilarious.
* * * *
Ramirez's trade cleared some room for younger talent, which is a good point at which to end this look. These years seem to mark something of a muddled transition period for the Braves: Cox has taken over the front office, Kasten is now the team president, and there's a mix of youth and stopgap veterans in place. And, in some limited cases, stopgap youth---like Ramirez's replacement, Andres Thomas, an undisciplined hitter (.228 OBP in 1989!) and even more erratic shortstop.
The 1988 team is an utter mess, with tons of pointless veterans occupying the lineup of a 100-loss team that was basically as bad as the 0-21 Orioles. But the foundation of better teams is starting to make its way up, and in fact the pitching staff by then has been cleared off sufficiently to give Tom Glavine and Pete Smith shots at age 22; Smoltz will follow later in the season at age 21. In the meantime, Rick Mahler is around to absorb some innings.
Moreover, getting their first shots---in some capacity or another---are other future mainstays, such as Gant, Jeff Blauser, David Justice, and Mark Lemke.