Talented Braves won't sit still in quest for third Series return


ATLANTA -- Only a few hours after another opportunity for a World Series title slipped away, Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz woke up yesterday morning.

There were the usual feelings of disappointment.

There also was, said Schuerholz, "a sense of relief that the pressure over the last month and a half had dissipated."

It has been a nerve-racking six weeks for Atlanta. The sudden rise of Cincinnati in the last few weeks of the regular season, Francisco Cabrera's pennant-winning hit, the distraction of Deion Sanders and the clubhouse bickering finally ended Saturday night with one of the best World Series games ever.

And unlike last year, when just winning the division was good enough, a second Series failure would appear to be a letdown to some.

But said Schuerholz, "We won two straight pennants. My glass is half-full, not half-empty."

The Braves may not have won a championship, but they have become perhaps the premier organization in baseball, winning more games than any other team in the majors the past two years and becoming the first National League team to make it to the Series in back-to-back seasons since the Dodgers in 1977-78, also losers of two straight.

The Braves also expect to go into next season as a contender again. Unlike the World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays, who might lose a good part of their roster to free agency, the Braves will be strong no matter what happens in the expansion draft and will lose none of their stars to free agency.

So with the countdown to spring training beginning, here are some questions facing the club in offseason:

The Braves will have 15 days to complete their 15-man protection list for the expansion draft Nov. 18 in New York. Are they close to their final decisions?

Yes, the list is close to being complete, although there are some questions about who will fill the final spots. The locks for protection are starting pitchers Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz, reliever Mark Wohlers, third baseman Terry Pendleton, outfielders Ron Gant and David Justice and prospects Javier Lopez, Ryan Klesko, David Nied and Melvin Nieves.

That leaves four spots. One will go to one of two relievers, Mike Stanton or Kent Mercker. Stanton appears to have the edge, considering his performance at the end of the regular season and postseason.

Another spot will go to either Deion Sanders or Otis Nixon. It appears the Braves will not be able to protect both. If Sanders is left open, he is surely to be taken. Leaving Nixon, who still has two more years on a $2.65 million contract, seems to be less of a risk.

Another spot probably will be taken by shortstop Jeff Blauser, who was the club's most effective all-around player in the second half of the season and still is only 26.

That leaves the last spot for either first baseman Brian Hunter or starter Pete Smith. Hunter has proven he can eventually put up big power numbers, but the organization already has its first baseman of the future in Klesko. Also, a club can never have enough pitching, and Smith proved with his 7-0 record that he might be the star he once was projected.

What are the Braves going to do with Sanders?

OK, he has been a problem off the field, but Sanders proved in the World Series just how talented he is. Also, this is not an organization filled with talented leadoff hitters, and remember that Nixon is 33.

What Schuerholz may have to do is finally give Sanders the money he wants to become a full-time baseball and then let him play football after the season is over. Yes, that would set a bad precedent in the salary structure for young players. But how often does a player like Sanders come around?

Last season, Schuerholz did not seriously test the free-agent market. Will he open the bank book this winter?

Because of the draft, the Braves are likely to lose a player or two off their 25-man roster and may have to fill in some spots with a free agent or two. But Schuerholz is likely going to make a strong bid for Pittsburgh All-Star Barry Bonds, who will cost more than $6 million a season. Schuerholz is infatuated with the talent of Bonds -- feeling he is the best all-around player in baseball -- and tried to make a deal for him last spring.

Schuerholz also may look for some catching help because of the injury to Greg Olson. The biggest name out there is San Diego's Benito Santiago. But Santiago will carry a hefty price tag, and he has the reputation of having trouble handling pitchers. Already, several of Atlanta's pitchers, including Glavine, have said they hope the Braves don't make a bid for Santiago.

If the Braves get Bonds, doesn't that leave a logjam in the outfield?

Yes, and the Braves will have to make a move, perhaps dealing David Justice, who continues to upset the organization with his attitude. This could be a chance for the Braves to trade for some pitching talent, which is starting to deplete in the organization. Their only true major-league prospect at Triple-A Richmond this season was Nied.

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