Let’s start with the obvious: Baseball teams don’t win championships in December.
If they did, the World Series would be on a consistent rotation between the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox, often coming down to which team lost a pitcher to a hyper-extended elbow at the drive-thru ATM.
But December says a lot about aspirations and expectations, and the Braves’ owners, in the holiday spirit, once again look like Mr. Potter telling George Bailey to stick it.
The Philadelphia Phillies – whose team payroll already was about $58 million more than the Braves’ last season – just added Cliff Lee to their pitching staff. It gives them four pitchers (Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels) in their starting rotation who have combined for three Cy Young Awards, 13 All-Star games, two NLCS MVP awards and one World Series MVP.
It turns the Phillies — pending any other acquisitions of Albert Pujols or a Swiss Bank — into the overwhelming favorites to win the National League East, the N.L. pennant and the World Series, after which they can move onto other solar systems.
But this isn’t about a division rival adding one pitcher. It’s about the Braves being stuck with one owner.
General manager Frank Wren has conceded several times that he has to work within the confines of a budget, while trying not to step on the Bruno Magli covered toes of team owner Liberty Media. Fans may live for checkbook roster building in the winter, but the Braves don’t have that option.
Liberty Media doesn’t really care about you, or the product, or the fact that the Phillies’ team payroll has jumped from $89 million in 2007 to $142 million last season. They don’t hand out peanuts and foam tomahawks at stockholders meetings. They hand out profit-and-loss statements.
In sports, we want owners who are as passionate as the guy who’ll show up for the Tuesday night game against the Florida Marlins. Sorry. You get the owner whose luxury suite remains empty on a summer weekend.
A recent Wall Street Journal survey of the nation’s top 10 paid CEOs showed Liberty Media’s Gregory Maffei’s total compensation was $87.1 million, four times his financial take of the year before. The Braves’ total payroll last year: $84 million.
Question: Can Maffei play center field or hit leadoff, because the Braves are still a bit thin in those areas?
Somebody once said money doesn’t buy happiness but it enables one to pick their own misery. Applying that to sports: Money doesn’t guarantee the Phillies are going to win the World Series, but it gives them a significant advantage over the Braves when they go shopping.
Wren told our Carroll Rogers that the Lee signing, “really has no impact on the construction of our roster.”
What would you expect him to say? “Dang! We should’ve signed Carl Crawford!”
Wren robbed the Marlins of Dan Uggla. That strengthened their lineup and will enable them to move Martin Prado to either left field or third base. But they’ve still got issues. They’re banking on Chipper Jones being able to come back from a torn ACL, and he turns 39 in April. They’re banking of Freddie Freeman being ready at first base. Most of all, they’re banking on some combination of Nate McLouth and Jordan Schafer not being a train wreck again in center.
With the Phillies signing Lee, some are now screaming for the Braves to acquire Zack Greinke from Kansas City. But the Braves really don’t need another starting pitcher. The rotation of Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens doesn’t have the marquee value of Lee-Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels. But it’s better than most. What the Braves really need is a proven center fielder and/or leadoff hitter and/or another bat (especially if Jones can’t come back). But the lack of cash flow precluded them from going after somebody like Crawford or even Jayson Werth in free agency, or absorbing a big contract in a trade.
Once again, the Braves must shop with coupons. Sometimes that works. But it’s not the way to build hope.