Atlanta not feeling so peachy after loss

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite clutching their league's best record and a virtual nonstop ticket into the League Championship Series, they sure seem a fretful lot. Gripes about blown calls. Superstars silent in defeat. And a huge payroll that bought more frustration than satisfaction.

No, not that team.

We're talking about the Atlanta Braves, the National League Goliaths who experienced a similar regular season to the Orioles, then suffered an identical fate in the postseason when the upstart Florida Marlins bounced them from the NLCS in six games. This is only the second time in six World Series that the Braves were not invited. Don't expect general manager and Baltimore native John Schuerholz to accept the decision as happenstance.

Said the Braves GM in the wake of defeat: "It's going to be a busy winter."

Winning 101 games -- three more than the $58 million Orioles -- the $56 million Braves masked the fact that they were largely a transitional team. They enter the off-season with three significant free agents -- center fielder Kenny Lofton, second baseman Mark Lemke and shortstop Jeff Blauser -- and a fourth position player, first baseman Fred McGriff, they would dearly love to deal. Schuerholz also must address a chronic bullpen dilemma that forced manager Bobby Cox to leave Tom Glavine on the mound to surrender seven runs and 17 base runners in their elimination game.

The bullpen is always a question in Turnerville. An owner with enough money to colorize "Casablanca" can't find the will to paint a competent bullpen.

Like Orioles manager Davey Johnson, Cox watched his team burn while using only nine pitchers in the NLCS. Schuerholz traditionally has rested on an unequaled rotation. That may change because the Braves' middle relief sagged during the stretch. Remarkably, the bullpen did not allow an earned run during the NLCS. (Clue: It worked only 7 2/3 innings.) The Braves will miss the veteran presence of long man and Baltimore resident Mike Bielecki, whose career likely ended with a torn rotator cuff.

McGriff hit an empty .277 with 22 home runs and 97 RBIs. His statistics were seen much as the Orioles' perception of Rafael Palmeiro's with one difference. McGriff is believed in decline; Palmeiro remains a seductive talent.

The Braves are a lock to expose McGriff to next month's expansion draft and are hopeful the Tampa Bay Devil Rays may pluck the Tampa native. If so, plodding left fielder Ryan Klesko would move to first base. Lofton, meanwhile, is virtually certain to go elsewhere, possibly Los Angeles, after an ill-fitting year in the Braves' low-key clubhouse. Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson will figure prominently as a possible replacement unless he and Orioles owner Peter Angelos can finalize a deal that has remained elusive. Lemke, christened "the original dirt player" by Cox, was unable to participate in the postseason.

Unless his stock plummets, the Braves will say goodbye to their second-longest-tenured player.

They enter 1998 as NL East champions trying to catch up with second-place Florida. One thing is close to certain: They won't be called the same old Braves.

Freezeout on free agents?

Forget about the free-agent free-for-all of 1996. Outrage over the giant contracts that were handed out last year may have a chilling effect on free-agent bidding this winter, especially with the quality of the free-agent crop questionable.

The Chicago White Sox spent $55 million to sign Albert Belle, and still had another discouraging season in 1997. The Florida Marlins got a big return on their $89 million investment in several players, but the club is up for sale because of disappointing revenues. There is no question that success is for sale -- all four of the teams that reached the second round of playoffs were big-spending clubs -- but fewer and fewer teams seem willing to pay the price. That, and a couple of other factors could conspire to flatten the free-agent market. The talent pool won't be nearly as deep as it was a year ago, and the expansion draft will keep most clubs occupied for the first three weeks of November.

Most clubs wised up and signed the franchise players who were in line to become free agents this year. The Orioles locked up Mike Mussina and Cal Ripken last spring. The Braves signed premier pitchers Greg Maddux and Glavine. The Chicago Cubs signed Sammy Sosa. The St. Louis Cardinals locked up Mark McGwire. The free-agent Class of '97 could have been one of the best ever, but most clubs recognize that it is easier to re-sign their marquee players without other teams standing by to bid up the price.

The top starting pitchers on the market likely will be Houston Astros star Darryl Kile and San Francisco Giants left-hander Wilson Alvarez, who should be thanking the Orioles and Braves for taking three of the best pitchers in the game out of the picture. The top position players figure to be Lofton, Andres Galarraga and the Orioles' Anderson. Demand also should be high for closers Randy Myers, Roberto Hernandez and even veteran Doug Jones, but no one -- at any position -- appears to be in danger of setting any new salary standards. The teams at the top of baseball's payroll pyramid still are going to spend to win, but more and more executives are becoming sensitive to the effect that each inflated contract can have on the game's economic future.

Popular guy

The name that is already stoking the rumor mill in several cities is not a potential free agent, but Montreal Expos Cy Young Award candidate Pedro Martinez. He may be on the trading block, and several contending clubs -- including the Orioles -- are expected to put together packages to try and acquire him.

Don't get too excited. The Orioles probably don't have enough to offer. The Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees appear to be better equipped to acquire him, which is not good news for Orioles fans hoping to watch the World Series at Camden Yards next year.

DH's remain safe

The recent decision by baseball owners to go with a modest realignment plan means there will be far less market uncertainty for those veteran players who perform predominantly in the designated-hitter role. The original "radical" realignment proposal would have shuffled the leagues so dramatically that about half of the teams now employing designated hitters would have had to alter their lineups to play by National League rules.

Instead, only one existing American League team is going to move to the National League -- either the Kansas City Royals or the Milwaukee Brewers -- and there is the possibility that no individual player will be affected. Royals DH Chili Davis figures to move on regardless of whether the club agrees to switch leagues. Davis, who is nearing the end of his career, apparently would like to go out a winner, and may try to jump to a contending club -- perhaps the Orioles, who are not expected to keep Geronimo Berroa.

Intervening variable

Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash risked a tampering charge when he told reporters that he would be interested in talking to Johnson if Angelos decides to change managers. He also left room to wonder if he was doing a favor for his old boss, Orioles GM Pat Gillick.

Gillick is caught in the middle of the personality conflict between Angelos and Johnson, a situation that was reflected in his comment last week that the odds are "50-50" that Johnson will return for the final year of his three-year contract. Gillick can't afford to take a strong public position either way, or risk undermining his position with the owner or damaging his relationship with his manager.

Ash's comments clearly strengthen Johnson's position, since Angelos cannot relish the thought of his fired manager rescuing one of the Orioles' chief division rivals.

In the hunt

The Blue Jays are well into the first round of interviews in their search for a new manager. Orioles coach Rick Down and former Orioles coach Jerry Narron met with club officials at the World Series in Cleveland. Both are serious candidates who may be handicapped by their lack of major-league managerial experience, but the Jays may go with a fresh face to lead them back to respectability.

Ash is expected to invite several finalists to Toronto in early November for a second round of interviews.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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