Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bring Smoltzie Back, Mr. Wren

The excitement and sadness of September 27, 1987 still resonate to this day. Having already celebrated my 16th birthday and my new license to drive my own personal tank (a '77 Monte Carlo from which I would emerge scratch-free after running it into a ditch a few weeks later during a marching band scavenger hunt), it was 9/27 when my favorite baseball team was exorcising itself of one of the dumbest of many dumb moves it made through the '70's and '80's. Given the current state of John Smoltz's career, Braves' management today would do well to learn the lesson it should have learned from the way the team handled Phil Niekro more than two decades ago.

It was sunny in Atlanta when Niekro, 48 years old, took the mound for the final time. The reigning king of the knuckleball had been justifiably released earlier in the year by both the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays and knew that his 24th big league season would be his last. The Braves, where Niekro spent the first 20 years of his big league life, signed him specifically so he could pitch his last game in his old home ballpark. For three innings, it was as if Niekro were 28 again, as he tossed shut out ball against the Giants. But the clock struck midnight in the fourth, as Knucksie gave up a couple of runs and left his final game with the bases loaded, runs driven in and charged to Niekro when Candy Maldonado hit a grand slam off reliever Chuck Cary, in what eventually was a blowout win for San Fran. Still, for those of us who grew up with an aging but effective Niekro as one of the few highlights of our lovable losers, it was wonderful to see him in a Braves' uniform one more time, especially since they shouldn't have let him go in the first place.

In 1983, a 44-year-old Niekro was a league-average pitcher for the Braves, going 11-10 with a 3.97 ERA (98 ERA+). When Ted Turner decided he was too old to pitch and should instead marry a hippie and join the front office, Niekro instead signed with the New York Yankees and proved him wrong, having his last excellent season in '84 (16-8, 3.09, 123 ERA+). Knucksie followed with a league-average season at age 46 (16-12, 4.09, 98 ERA+), with his final win of 1985 being number 300 for his career. After George Steinbrenner decided he was too old to pitch and should instead join the front office and fire George Castanza, the Indians signed Niekro. Amazingly, he was almost league-average again at age 47 (11-11, 4.32, 96 ERA+) before the old knuckleball finally gave up the ghost in '87.

So besides being good PR to keep one of your icons in your team's uniform for his entire career, would an average pitcher who avoided injury have helped the Braves on the field during those years? Let's look at Atlanta's staff in the years Niekro was still effective, 1984-86. In '84, the Braves had just two pitchers make at least 29 starts and have a league-average or better season, Rick Mahler (123 ERA+) and Pascual Perez (103). In '85, that number was again two, Mahler at 118 and Steve Bedrosian at 100. In '86, the only decent Braves starter was David Palmer, who made 35 starts with an ERA+ of 108. While Knucksie certainly wouldn't have helped those pathetic teams make the playoffs, the Braves most assuredly would have been better than 80-82, 66-96, and 72-89 those three seasons with Niekro on the hill every fifth day.

Atlanta now faces a similar conundrum with Smoltz, who turns 43 in May. Number 29 doesn't have a team right now, and Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Bobby Cox placed a call to Smoltzie recently. For Smoltz to come back to Atlanta, either for a full season or as a late-season addition, general manager Frank Wren would have to eat a big plate of fried crow over grits. Despite clear evidence that Smoltz had recovered from what felt like his 87th surgery in 2008, Wren decided it was a fabulous time to do Brett Favre role play and not make up his mind on re-signing Smoltz. Granted, it appeared that Wren was prescient when Smoltz signed with the Red Sox and promptly rang up an 8.32 ERA in eight starts before the Sox gave up on him. But then, the Cardinals signed Smoltz, and he showed he still had something left with an ERA just barely below league-average (4.26, 96 ERA+), as well as 40 strikeouts in 38 innings over 7 starts. Mr. Wren should loosen his belt and chow down, because Smoltzie doesn't belong in any other uniform than the one with the tomahawk across the belly.

Signing Smoltz would help Wren extricate himself from the first serious mistake of his tenure. An icon who should never have left the team will be back where he belongs, and unlike Niekro, he could help the Braves get to the postseason. Smoltz will probably tell you he can still be an effective starter, and the Braves probably don't have room in their rotation for him right now. At this point, though, I bet Smoltz would rather pitch than not pitch, and as Martha Stewart always says, an extra arm in the bullpen is a good thing. Especially when that arm can still throw 92 and belongs to one of the greatest relief pitchers in Braves' history. Atlanta repeated a bad portion of that history with their dismissal of Smoltz just over a year ago. Let's hope they take advantage of the golden opportunity before them to correct it.

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