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He Wept, For There Were No More Worlds to Conquer

I hope so. But that's up to the guy upstairs.
---Officer John McClane, Die Hard

I wonder if Stan Kasten ever gets tired of the implied warranty of team-building omniscience that gets assigned to him in every story, every column, and every interview. I do not mean to demean those who compose the stories, construct the columns, and conduct the interviews. Given his success with the Atlanta Braves, Kasten deserves substantial heaps of respect and deference. He is, at least by osmosis, a foremost authority on how to build a winning and sustainable baseball organization. But he's a mere man, far from perfect, and it seems most stories, columns, and interviews involving Kasten start from the premise that Kasten has an uncommonly specialized and near-secretive knowledge on the process that must be trusted implicitly.

Maybe he does. Time will tell whether the magic manifests a second time in a second place; needless to say, I'm rooting for him and his gang.

However, this premise I refer to in the opening paragraph limits our understanding of what Kasten knows about organization-building. It caters to what he knows that he knows that works, if that makes sense. Conversely, it disregards what he knows that he knows that doesn't or hasn't worked, if that makes even less sense. More simply stated, so established is Kasten's past success with the Braves that the disappointments over there are hardly broached, if ever.

We all know the Braves went from "Here" in the late 1980s to "There" by the early 1990s (and stayed "There" for a decade-and-a-half). Quite reasonably, we all went the Lernastens to see the Nationals from "Here" to "There" with similar aplomb and staying power. How did the Braves get from "Here" to "There," and how will the Nationals hope to do it? The public accounts are surprisingly vague; even the two (post-Moneyball) introspections on the Braves Era were, I'm told, rather unsatisfying in detail.

We know the Braves developed talent---lots and lots of talent. They eschewed major league salary (unless they didn't eschew it) until the young talent was ready to harmonize it (and even before then). They continued developing talent, and they used the free agent market to fill in the gaps (except when they needed big stars). Essentially, they developed a pipeline of young talent and did whatever needed to be done, at the time, to augment it in order to retain dominance.

How to apply this knowledge to the Nats? Well, they must develop young talent, obviously. And other than that? That requires whatever other secrets the Braves employed, which aren't really forthcoming, which is why the loyal fanbase has embraced the concept of "The Plan." When I read Nats320's great interview series with Kasten, I imagined Stan the Man chuckling a bit at the mention of "The Plan." Not because no such plan exists, but because it cannot be as fundamental, principled, and Sinai-esque as some fans out there on the message boards make it out to be. It's a slogan. It's a catchphrase. It's political. There is no book lying around bearing the title "The Plan." To the extent there is one, I'd imagine it is Branch Rickey's "Little Blue Book," a book Kasten (as well as most baseball executives, I'd imagine) attests he keeps close to his heart.

This was the same Branch Rickey, of course, who famously wrote that "luck is the residue of design." Sometimes, you just have to be willing to be lucky---which means you need to be prepared to be unlucky, and then learn from that unluckiness. It's not Kasten's past successes that interest me; we know all about them. It's what he's learned from the Braves' disappointments that interests me more.

* * * *

It's one thing to look at the transactions record from way back when, make certain inferences about what the Braves were up to, and apply that evaluation to the Nats' present state. You can even buttress that evaluation with the sort of expert testimony Kasten provides, as Boz did in a fascinating column comparing the 1988 Braves with today's Nats. That's what the Braves did. And, on that basis, you can say make all kinds of statements about what the Nats are up to now and how "The Plan" conforms to Kasten's history with the Braves, like it's okay the Nats aren't signing any pitchers, because when did the pre-dynasty Braves ever waste money on free agent pitchers? Stan's done it before; stay the course, Stan.

What the transactional record doesn't tell you is what the Braves intended to do. And here's where we get to the interesting part, finally. Thanks to the Paper of Record website, I can access all those back issues of The Sporting News, and in the process, I discovered something I had long forgotten: Atlanta was going to go for it during 1989-90 offseason. This was, of course, one year early, as the Braves came out of nowhere to capture a pennant in 1991.

During the '89-90 offseason, TSN reported the Braves sought to fill several holes:

  • third base: sights on all sorts of veterans, up to and including Hubie Brooks, who would convert back to the hot corner;
  • power-hitting first baseman: namely, Georgia-native Nick Esasky;
  • stud outfielder: most prominently, Joe Carter, who ended up being dealt to San Diego in one of those Trades of the Century deals;
  • veteran starting pitchers: Charlie Leibrandt, Bryn Smith, others); and
  • relief ace: Jeff Reardon, as well as . . .
Mark Davis.

Yes, Mark Davis. On January 1, 1990, TSN reported the Braves lost out on Davis, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, despite outbidding the Royals for his services. The report noted this information came from Braves "sources," so the claim was almost certainly reliable. (And, at the time, it was quite a claim. Months later, it would seem like a confession, but at the time Davis was quite the hot property.)

Reports indicated the Braves very badly wanted to fill these holes. They had a stable of young pitching, and reportedly they were willing to part with any of these pitchers, with two exceptions: Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Good decision. (I'm pretty sure a third, Steve Avery, was also quite untouchable.) As it was, they signed Esasky and third baseman Jim Presley, and they traded for Leibrandt. In other words, they came up short of their goals. But, with Esasky, they still made a significant splash.

* * * *

My question is simple: What would Kasten say about that offseason?

Did the front office really believe it was time to make a big move? Did it feel the need to acquire notable players to drum up fan interest? Did it want to surround a rapidly declining Dale Murphy with a core of more vibrant talent? Was it time to cash in on some talented second-tier pitchers? When it did not meet these (reported) goals, what was the front office's reaction? Was management truly committed to youth before (as it seemed to be in 1989)? Hopefully, you can see why some of these questions have relevance when discussing "The Plan" today and in the future.

As it happened, the Braves acquired a third baseman and a first baseman in 1990, and they did the same in 1991. In hindsight, those 1991 acquisitions are viewed as the perfect pieces to complement and catalyze a team that was ready to make the next step. Although no one would confuse Jim Presley with Terry Pendleton (even coming off Pendleton's worst season), was the hope the same in '90?

* * * *

This all leads to yesterday's teaser involving Esasky, who unfortunately had a very short career with the Braves due to vertigo. (I hope it is not callous to comment that the signing was probably not a good one otherwise, as Esasky was coming off a career year in Fenway Park.) If Esasky had not come down with that lamentable condition, would Dave Justice, for instance, have become a core member of the early and intermediate Braves dynasty? It is at least somewhat in doubt.

Justice made his name as a power-and-patience combo rightfielder, but he received his initial extended shot as a first baseman. Called up from Richmond in mid-May after Esasky become unavailable and various stopgap arrangements proved untenable, Justice became the regular at first. He made all of one start in right prior to August 3, 1990, the day the Braves traded Murphy to the Phillies. Justice wasn't very good prior to the Murphy trade, but he went nuts thereafter, pounding 20 homers from August 1 until the end of the season.

According to a Sporting News report on August 11, 1990, Murphy facilitated the trade by announcing he would not re-sign with the Braves following the season; he did not fit with the Braves' youth movement (Justice, Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Glavine, Smoltz, Avery, etc.), commenting, "It's the young guys' turn and I'm not going to be a part of it." Nothwithstanding his stated need to leave Atlanta, Murphy left with a sense of regret---"I have a lot of feelings about the club I left behind," he admitted---and I wonder whether he would have stayed had the Braves' intentions the previous offseason come to fruition.

What if the club had pulled off a trade for Carter and signed Davis as well as a veteran starter or two? What if Esasky had not come down with vertigo? What if the Braves had not been 51-61 prior to August 1?

Anybody can play "What if?" but I'm not playing the game to be difficult. I'm simply playing to show how easily alternate realities could have come to fruition. I'll forgo Doc Brown's explanatory chalkboard, but Justice's future could have been foreclosed twice over had the Braves not been unsuccessful with Carter and unlucky with Esasky. Even if it's a stretch to say Murphy would have stayed, what if Carter had come? Given the team's need for a leadoff man, and the resulting decision to bring in Otis Nixon to play left, it is not ridiculous to speculate Justice would have played first . . . but only if in this version of reality Esasky still had the vertigo condition . . . and if he hadn't, would Justice have had the opportunity to bust out late in 1990 and establish himself thereafter? (And if Justice had played first, what would have become of Sid Bream's miracle stumble to home in the '92 NLCS? Would Fred McGriff have become a Brave in '93? In the somewhat dubious event Justice turned it during his rookie year because of the shift to right, would he have thrived as a first baseman?)

* * * *

Anyway, I hope my intent here is somewhat clear. I have the perception---real or, well, perceived---that some people out there believe Stan Kasten is overseeing this job, step-by-step, checking off each move on the inside flap of "The Plan." Yes to this, no to that, wait on this, jump on that. I have no doubt Kasten quite competently is keeping tabs on exactly what Jim Bowden is doing this offseason and is lending his substantial insight into what made the Braves great (most obviously, the farm system). But I don't think organization-building was quite as formulaic for the Braves as some make it appear it is for the Nats. In reality, "The Plan"---as far as the Braves were concerned---covered two general managers, both of whom simultaneously wanted one of history's greatest free agent busts very badly. (John Schuerholz was Kansas City's GM at the time, and the twin Davis busts---Mark and Storm---no doubt greased the skids of his tenure there.) These are the two individuals (along with Kasten, one supposes) most responsible for the creation and maintenance of one of professional baseball's all-time success stories. Sometimes, I suppose, we are lucky despite ourselves.

I'm not trying to pick holes in Stan Kasten's pedigree. Anything but. Instead, I suppose I am trying to leave open the possibility how delicate and malleable a "Plan" can be. That things came together magically for the Braves under Kasten's executive watch is undeniable. But the things that didn't come together during that time are more interesting and, I'd submit, informative. People learn from their disappointments. What did Stan Kasten learn, and when did he learn it?