As we sit waiting for pitchers and catchers to report in five weeks, it’s amazing to me how many people remain overly worried about the upcoming season for the Atlanta Braves. Certainly, there are questions about this team; there always are. But I decided to look back in history a bit to show you what real worry is all about.
Back in the winter of 1987-88, the Braves, managed by Chuck Tanner and general managed by Bobby Cox, were coming off a 69-92 season. The team was edging out of the Dale Murphy/Bob Horner era by allowing Glenn Hubbard to go to Oakland as a free agent and by trading Rafael Ramirez to Houston, and looking forward to a new crop of young players that were developing at the higher levels of the farm system.
Several players had just made their big league debuts the previous season. Tom Glavine got nine starts at the end 1987, along with fellow pitchers Pete Smith and Kevin Coffman, second baseman Ron Gant, and shortstop Jeff Blauser. Glavine and Smith were being counted on to replace David Palmer and Doyle Alexander, two starters that had combined for 44 starts the previous season, while Gant was the heir apparent to Hubbard at second base.
The Braves were clearly in the middle of their rebuilding phase of the late 80s. They were shying away from free agents, as were most teams at that point. Along with the Ramirez deal, where they acquired third base prospect Ed Whited and pitching prospect Mike Stoker, the Braves made only one other trade that entire winter: getting Triple-A outfielder Terry Blocker from the Mets for a young pitching prospect named Kevin Brown (a different one).
Blocker had hit .312 with 33 stolen bases for Tidewater the season before. The Braves believed that with Ken Griffey, Sr. getting a bit older, they needed a young outfielder to help create offense. They wanted to put Blocker with Dion James, who was coming off an impressive .312 average himself for Atlanta in 1987, at the top of the batting order.
But other than that, acquiring a player that had a total of 15 major league at bats, the only other moves the Braves made were forgettable. They signed pitcher Juan Eichelberger and infielder Buddy Biancalana to minor league contracts with invitations to spring training.
Both names, Eichelberger and Biancalana, represent the talent level the Braves were dealing with in the late 80s, before the young guns arrived. Eichelberger was a 34-year-old right-hander that had spent two years in the Braves’ system trying to bounce back after seeing his pathetic four-year career finally go down in flames. He had gone 24-36 in 105 major league games (79 starts) with an ERA of 4.11. He had almost as many walks (252) as strikeouts (268) in his big league career.
Biancalana was known more for the game-winning hit in Game Five of the 1985 World Series that helped John Schuerholz’s Kansas City Royals win the Fall Classic than for his career .205 major league average. And then David Letterman had made fun of his name on NBC, making it almost a household word for a few weeks. His baseball skills were pretty limited, yet he was invited to the Braves’ camp.
So that was it. Blocker was traded for, and Eichelberger and Biancalana were invited to camp as non-roster players. That was the offseason for the Atlanta Braves in 1988. There were no major moves, and no major free agent signings.
From an organizational standpoint, Cox knew his team was not going to be very good. This was not a team that realistically had a chance to win much in 1988. Cox knew he had Glavine and Smith and Gant ready to step in immediately, with Blauser and John Smoltz and David Justice and Mark Lemke not far behind. So there were some reasons for the inactivity.
But when you look at the spring training roster eighteen years ago, you almost feel guilty for having one worry about the roster we will take to Florida in a couple of weeks. The rotation in 1988 was going to be led by the late Rick Mahler, who was the Braves’ ace, but a number four starter on most teams, along with lefty Zane Smith, who was coming off a 15-10 record in 1987 and did give the team hope for a decent lefty starter.
Then after Glavine and Pete Smith, you had guys like Charlie Puleo and Tom Dozier hoping for a spot in the rotation, along with young kids like Derek Lilliquist, the first rounder in 1987, Tommy Greene, Andy Nezelek, and Marty Clary. The questions were aplenty.
The bullpen was even more worrisome that spring. No one knew whether or not Bruce Sutter would ever come back. He had missed all of 1987 with arm trouble, and at 35 years old, his status was unclear. The pitcher with the most saves returning from 1987 was Jim Acker, who had 14 the season before. Acker was a setup man, but going into camp, he had the best chance to be our closer.
Then you had guys like Paul Assenmacher, Joe Boever, Chuck Cary, Jeff Dedmon, Ed Olwine, and Sid Akins. Not exactly Remlinger and Hammond and Holmes in that group. Assenmacher was a decent arm, but like Acker, he was strictly a setup man. There were not even any young pitchers that you thought had a chance to step in as an eventual closer at some point during the season.
In the field, five players were returning as starters: Ozzie Virgil at catcher, Gerald Perry at first base, Andres Thomas at shortstop, Ken Oberkfell at third base, and Ken Griffey, Sr. in left field. All five players were very marginal, and some might even say downright bad. The lineup being assembled was not going to confuse anyone with the ’27 Yankees.
Dale Murphy was coming off a great season in 1987, and he was the lone bright star that no one worried about. Murph was still only 32 that spring, so everyone believed he had several years left. And compared to the rest of the team, left field was the one position on the diamond that did not have a huge question mark next to it.
It was a bleak winter, really. Certainly, there was hope in the long-term talent being assembled in the minor leagues. But Braves’ fans still had to face the prospect of another losing season, and it was not very fun at all. To know that we’d be mathematically eliminated in late April from any playoff contention was enough to make some not watch at all. But again, the prospect of what was being built was more hope than the franchise had in a long time.
That team in 1988 went 54-106. It was horrific – the lowest point in the franchise. Biancalana (thankfully) did not make the team, Blocker hit only .212 in 198 at bats, and Eichelberger pitched in twenty uneventful games out of the bullpen. The negativism must be tempered, though, with the players on the field that would go on in three seasons to turn the franchise around. But, believe me, suffering through 106 losses is not easy when you’re going through it.
Now look forward to the 2006 Atlanta Braves. Again, there are questions, many questions. But when you look at the talent level today, in the major leagues and in the minors, compared to what was going on eighteen years ago, there’s no comparison. Trust me, the 1988 Braves gave fans something to worry about. This year’s team should just have us anxious as ever to see how, once again, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz will pull off another trip to the playoffs.
So when you’re worried about the bullpen, or Adam LaRoche’s ability to play everyday, or Edgar Renteria taking over for Rafael Furcal, or a potential sophomore slump for Mr. Francoeur, just remember the questions the Braves were facing eighteen years ago.
Now that was something to really worry about.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.