IN EXPLAINING why he traded Cliff Lee, Ruben Amaro Jr. often explains that he can't do business like the Yankees. The other day, Charlie Manuel explained it through the model used by the Braves in winning 14 straight division titles.
"You have to do what we did this winter," he said. "You have to turn some guys over every year."
But are the comparisons valid? Not entirely.
Yes, the Yankees run a big payroll, and, yes, their contract with CC Sabathia undoubtedly fueled fears that Lee would not settle for anything less than a 5-year deal. But they also refused to part with some prized prospects when there was an opportunity to trade for Johan Santana in November 2007.
Yes, the Braves cut loose some stars along that 14-season run. But they also did exactly what the Phillies resisted doing this winter. They already had John Smoltz and Tom Glavine when they signed Greg Maddux before the 1993 season. The Braves had reached the World Series in two previous seasons, losing the seventh game of the 1991 Series to Jack Morris and the Twins, losing to the Blue Jays in six games the next.
The Braves were among the top spenders for much of their run, but a quick look at a list of all-time top career money earners in baseball underlines where much of that spending went. Maddux is seventh on the list. Smoltz is 13th, Glavine 14th. Mike Hampton, listed 19th, was a Brave from 2002 through 2008, the final 6 years of an 8-year, $121 million contract he signed with Colorado in 2000.
That explains why Ruben is stuck on 3-year deals, eh?
With Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, the Braves developed position players through their system over the next decade - Ryan Klesko, David Justice, Javy Lopez and, of course, Chipper Jones - and tried to finish off games with strong but unproven arms from their system. Mark Wohlers failed at that role after the Braves built a 2-0 lead in the 1996 World Series with the Yankees. So too did John Rocker, later on. Yes, Atlanta won all those division titles and reached the World Series three times, but their recurring flaw in winning only one world championship trended toward a suspect bullpen and weak bench - both staples of championship teams.
Did keeping three future Hall of Famers for all those years cash-strap them out of multiple world titles? It's a thought.
What is certain is their fans grew tired of the near misses. From 1992 through 2000 combined, the Braves averaged more than 40,000 fans per game. By 2003, though - a season in which they won 101 games - that average was down to 29,643. They were still spending as much as anyone but the Yankees - an estimated $106 million payroll at the time - but they had become the ultimate tease.
The Braves won 96 games in 2004, three more than the Phillies did last year. By then, average attendance dipped to 28,735.
Back to the Yankees. The Phillies dealt away both Jason Knapp and Kyle Drabek to rent Lee and acquire Roy Halladay. The Yankees held on to theirs when Sabathia was trade-deadline bait in 2008, and wouldn't part with a package that included prospects Phil Hughes, Austin Jackson and then-23-year-old outfielder Melky Cabrera when they had the chance to trade for Santana in 2007.
Imagine if they had done either, or both. They might have avoided missing the playoffs in 2008. It might even have allowed them to play the Phillies in the World Series in back-to-back years. Instead, Hughes was in the bullpen for the 2009 postseason, and was a suspect arm, at least against the Phillies. So was Joba Chamberlain, once the most untouchable Yankees prospect of all.
Last December, highly regarded Yankees righthanded prospect Ian Kennedy was dealt in the three-team deal that brought Tigers centerfielder Curtis Granderson to the Bronx. Cabrera subsequently was dealt to the Braves for 15-game winner Javier Vazquez, whose $11.5 million per season contract expires - as does Lee's $9 million per - after this coming season.
So in essence, the Yankees dealt Cabrera, prospects and $500,000 to acquire one of the game's better centerfielders and a 15-game winner - at least for the coming season. They see the ages of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada as a rationale for loading up for another run next year. But they also shed the contracts of Johnny Damon and World Series Most Valuable Player Hideki Matsui.
Once upon a time, the Indians were the Phillies' role model.
In 1996, when its collection of young stars included Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga, Cleveland built its pitching staff mainly through trades and free-agent rentals. Late-career pitchers like Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser gave them a chance to win, but were their Achilles' come postseason.
Back then, Cleveland drew 3.3 million fans a season, their average of 41,000-plus virtually unaltered through 2000. But the Tribe reached the World Series only once. Trading away two Cy Young Award winners over the last two seasons, the Indians dipped under the 2 million mark in attendance last season. They averaged 21,805 fans per home game.
So be careful with our hearts, fellas. We've made you The Show in this hard-to-please town. Maybe we can't be the Yankees, but we sure don't want to be the Braves for the next decade either. Prospects are nice, even better when they turn out to be something. But please, don't lose sight of your cousins in Cleveland.
They have a ton of prospects over there.
And no one gives a damn. *
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