If you’re trying to place blame on when the Braves blew their shot at making the playoffs, it wasn’t when Matt Diaz was caught off base trying to score against the Florida Marlins. That would have made the score only 5-5, and the game could still have been won.
And it wasn’t when Frank Wren was slow to pull the trigger on John Smoltz, leaving him to hook up with the Red Sox. Nor when Tom Glavine was turned down, in essence making way for Tommy Hanson in the pitching rotation. Au contraire, a stroke of glowing luck.
No, it goes way back longer than that. (And with this, I promise never to bring it up again.) It was when the Braves traded Adam Wainwright — as if he wasn’t enough — and Jason Marquis to the Cardinals for J.D. Drew, the nomadic outfielder. (Eli Marrero, the mysterious Latin also came along, but he created more dilemma than offense.)
And, of course, more recently the disastrous deal that robbed the farm system of five high-grade prospects to Texas for Mark Teixeira, the temporary first baseman. Five, mind you, starting pitcher, a catcher with long-range value, a shortstop now among the finest in the other league, Elvis Andrus, and maybe best of them all, the relief pitcher named Neftali Feliz.
They patched some of the holes, like signing Garret Anderson, the expression-less outfielder, then had to turn around and undo the deal that sent Adam LaRoche to the Pirates, by way of the Red Sox. LaRoche had been traded away in exchange for Mike Gonzalez, another of those one-inning bullpen wonders.
There’s nothing like what-might-have-been. Some of the best deals in baseball are those that are never made. It is quite likely that after all those 14 seasons of ringing up those banners over the left-field fence, that the Braves brass was beginning to pant for a return to glory. Their scouts had brought in some glistening prospects, only to have them squandered in disastrous trades. Nothing worse than the one that sent a pitcher developed under their noses here in the state, in Brunswick, also a tough out at-bat — Wainwright, who hits as well as he pitches. A 20-game winner for years down the road. Marquis, winner of 15 games at Denver — after being passed around to the Cubs and Cardinals — wasn’t popular with the brass. But waste a 15-game winner because he’s quirky?
Under Wren’s care, some good deals were made, and some not so good. He invested heavily in Kenshin Kawakami, the good-natured Japanese, who has since fallen from grace — into the bullpen. Derek Lowe cost even more, and true, he found a way to win 15 times, but his earned-run average outweighed his value, by a bunch. The Braves invested $60 million in him over the long haul. Just how much of this they can afford into future seasons is yet to be seen.
But, you will have to conclude that one major reason Bobby Cox decided to stick around another season is that he must have felt it a shame to leave with a gold-nugget pitching staff on hand. So there.
As for Matt Diaz, he’s a good card to have in your hand. Not only was he the Braves’ leading hitter, but he has never made a move that he didn’t make with the idea that it might win the game. Yep, he does have a kind of unscripted swing, but you can believe this — he’ll be back, and the Braves will win with him.