Four years ago the Atlanta Braves almost non-tendered right-handed starting pitcher Kevin Millwood. He was coming off an 18-win season and facing a huge payday. This was the same winter, you may remember, when the suits running Time Warner cut the Braves’ payroll 20%, from $100 million to $80 million.
The Braves wanted Millwood to stay, but veteran Greg Maddux had accepted the Braves’ arbitration offer, tying him to the team for another season at a gigantic salary. They had offered the arbitration to simply get draft picks as compensation, since Maddux’s agent Scott Boras had publicly said his client had several offers on the table from other teams.
In fact, Boras was not being totally honest. Maddux did not have another offer on the table and the Braves were ‘stuck’ with him for another season. The problem created by the dishonesty was that Millwood’s career in Atlanta had to end. The Braves just did not have room for both Maddux and Millwood with the reduced payroll.
General Manager John Schuerholz searched for a trade for Millwood before the non-tender deadline. And the only trade he could find was with a team in his own division, the Philadelphia Phillies, as they offered young catcher Johnny Estrada. You never want to trade a star player within your own division, but Schuerholz had no other choice. With Maddux coming back, Millwood had to go.
Now the Braves are faced with a similar situation of having a star player that they may have to non-tender, or in other words, release. Second baseman Marcus Giles is set to make between $5 and $6 million dollars next year in arbitration. And with a payroll already hovering around the $80 million dollar limit, the Braves are trying to trade Giles before having to make a catastrophic decision.
Let’s get this straight: the Atlanta Braves do not want to let Marcus Giles go for nothing. They are trying very hard to trade him – and have been trying for months. But they cannot find any team to take Giles off their hands. And if they do not find a taker before Tuesday night’s deadline, they will be forced to non-tender him and allow him to leave as a free agent.
Remember last time when Schuerholz had to trade Millwood and blamed it on the “poor economics of baseball.” Well this time he can only blame the “poor situation of his own team.” And no, it’s not his fault. The purgatory the Atlanta Braves are currently in with the ownership issue is causing serious problems.
Liberty Media is still negotiating with Time Warner to get the Braves in a stock swap. It’s a complicated matter that may take several more months to be finalized. It’s hard to imagine the Braves are being passed around like a vacant lot at the end of a cul-de-sac. But like it or not this ‘sale’ looks inevitable, and until it is completed this team will remain in limbo.
It’s a shame Major League Baseball has allowed this to linger as long as it has. Yes, there are complicated tax issues that must be satisfied, but what about “the best interest of baseball?” Is this the best interest of the Atlanta Braves to allow this to drag on and on and on?
We have no idea what Liberty Media will do once they gain control of the Braves. They may keep the payroll in the same neighborhood for two years and then sell the team (IRS regulations say they must keep the team for at least that time period before selling it again). But hopefully, it will be in their best interest to at least give the club some flexibility in dealing with its payroll.
If there was an owner in place now, perhaps Schuerholz could go to them and say, “Look, we’re getting ready to lose our veteran starting second baseman for nothing. Please let us expand the payroll a bit to at least fit him in.” They might still say no, but at least Schuerholz would have someone to ask.
And that wouldn’t mean the Braves could not still trade Marcus Giles, which I believe is their preference. But at least they would not be forced to deal with this Tuesday deadline which could cause a very drastic decision.
Giles has statistically declined since his career year in 2003, which was also his first full season in the big leagues. He did not embrace the role as the Braves’ leadoff man last year, and his public comments about his dislike for it somewhat irked the Braves. Plus, with Martin Prado, Yunel Escobar, and possibly even Kelly Johnson around as cheaper and younger alternatives, the Braves could replace him and hope there would not be that big of a drop off in production.
Atlanta has been trying to trade Giles since last summer, but unfortunately they cannot find any takers. No one will take this guy. The Indians expressed some interest in October, but they then acquired Josh Barfield from the Padres. When that move was made, it looked like the Padres, Giles’ hometown team, would be the perfect fit.
Giles’ brother Brian already plays for the Padres, and Marcus has always said he would not mind playing in San Diego. Why else would the Padres trade away a young and cheap second baseman in Barfield if they did not have a desire to bring Giles to the west coast?
But talks between the Braves and Padres have gotten nowhere. The Braves asked for Scott Linebrink, one of the best set up relievers in the National League, but the Padres have thus far said no. The Braves tried to revive talks last week at the Winter Meetings, but the Padres continued their posturing in turning down a deal.
Since then, the Braves have been trying to give Giles away and with no success. Now the talk is out that Atlanta might have no other choice but to cut him loose Tuesday, which further jeopardizes the chance for a trade. And at this point, with hours left to go before the non-tender deadline, the Braves have lost all their leverage and will take about anything in return for the person that has been their starting second baseman the last four seasons.
But why can’t the Braves trade Marcus Giles? His salary will probably increase to around $5.5 million next season, which in today’s market is not outrageous. He’s put up decent statistics the last few years, despite the decreases since 2003. But no one will take him. There’s really no logical reason for the Braves not being able to trade him.
Okay, there have been some issues with Giles in the past that might have gotten out. Maybe teams are afraid to acquire him. Something is causing these teams to shy away from him. It’s not like the Braves asking price for Giles is outrageous. Sure, they wanted Linebrink from San Diego, but they now know that is not going to happen. So their demands have decreased dramatically, yet it seems tougher to trade Giles more than ever.
Since the Braves have not been able to trade Giles, it does raise some red flags that no team seems to want him. It also shows that the Braves truly believe it’s time to go in another direction at second base. But now they are facing the distinct possibility that they may have to let Giles go without getting anything in return.
If this organization was not in purgatory, Schuerholz could just go ahead and tender Giles a contract offer and then take the entire winter and even spring training to try and trade his second baseman. But he can’t afford to do that now.
According to current projections, with salary increases and bonuses, the Braves 2007 payroll right now (with Giles’ $5.5 million figure included) stands at $81.75 million dollars - $1.75 million above the $80 million budget. That might not seem like a lot to be over, but the team still has to find a backup first baseman and continue the construction of the team. They need flexibility to do that, and without Giles’ figure the budget would be at $76.250 million, which would be enough to at least have a little bit of room to finish the business of the offseason.
So for Schuerholz to stay within his budget, he has no choice but to get rid of Giles before Tuesday’s deadline. And with this team in limbo, he has no leeway. It’s the same reason he tried to trade Tim Hudson to fit Tom Glavine under the budget. He was afraid that if he went ahead and offered Glavine a contract and then was unable to trade Hudson, he would be stuck with Hudson’s salary and would have been drastically over the $80 million budget. And with no clear ownership in place, Schuerholz just has no room to fudge on the budget at this point.
Hopefully, Schuerholz can find someone to make a trade for Giles before the deadline. It might not be easy, but at this point getting anything in return will be better than getting nothing at all. People are going to scream when Giles is jettisoned out of Atlanta, and despite anything that might truly cause the Braves to want him gone, you can clearly point to the limbo this club is in for the reason the club is in this situation.
It’s just another reason the sale of this team must be completed as soon as possible. How many more crucial decisions are going to be affected by the limbo this club is in?
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. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.