10/27/2003 2:03 PM ET
GM Schuerholz has big job ahead
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
Gary Sheffield led the team with a .330 batting average and ranked second in the National League with a career-best 132 RBIs. (Kyle Ericson/AP)
ATLANTA -- As the Tom Glavine saga proved last year, the offseason provides a number of uncertain variables that can quickly alter the direction and look of an organization.
Braves general manager John Schuerholz was reminded of this while successfully navigating himself through last year's eventful offseason, which was highlighted with Glavine's surprise decision to flee Atlanta and sign with the Mets. This winter Schuerholz will once again find himself forced to make a flurry of decisions as 13 Braves players, including Javy Lopez, Gary Sheffield and Greg Maddux, are eligible for free agency.
Lopez, who hit .328 with career highs in homers (43) and RBIs (109) last year, filed for free agency less than 24 hours after the Marlins won the World Series on Saturday night. The veteran backstop, whose 42 homers as a catcher set a Major League record, will likely be collecting his next paycheck outside of Atlanta.
"We're open to returning to Atlanta," Lopez's agent Chuck Berry said. "It's been a mutually beneficial relationship over the years. But with the addition of Johnny Estrada and [the Braves'] desire to cut costs, we realize it's unlikely."
Over the next 10 days, Berry and fellow agents can only talk to teams regarding their interest level in their respective clients who have filed for free agency. After that period, contract specifics can be discussed and soon after, player movement will begin.
For players like Lopez and Sheffield, who are coming off MVP-caliber seasons, free agency is an avenue that can lead to lucrative contracts. But still the process is not always seen as pleasurable for somebody like the 33-year-old Lopez, who has been a part of the Braves organization since he was 17 years old.
"Free agency is tough on the players," Berry said. "In my 20 years of doing this, I've never seen a player who enjoyed going through it."
While it seems Lopez will be gone, Sheffield's fate still seems unknown. The All-Star outfielder fired Scott Boras earlier this year and will represent himself, with the help of friends and associates, in the contract negotiations.
"The way I see it is, if I'm already making $11 million without you, why do I want to give you five percent of $14 or $15 million," Sheffield said. "I'm at the point of my life where I know what I want and I have enough people who can help me with this."
Obviously the Braves would like to have Sheffield back. But their financial landscape will play a big factor in determining whether they can bring back the slugger, who led the team with a .330 batting average and ranked second in the National League with a career-best 132 RBIs.
Sheffield's uncle Dwight Gooden has a strong relationship with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Sheffield has said in the past that he wouldn't mind one day wearing the Yankee pinstripes.
This past season was widely thought to be Maddux's final one in Atlanta. But the only certainty regarding the right-hander is that he will not find another contract that pays him anywhere close to the $14.75 million he received from the Braves this year.
Obviously, if by chance, there are not any suitable offers from other teams, Maddux may return to the Braves at a significant discount. In fact, one long-time former Atlanta pitcher believes when it's all said and done Maddux will be back with the Braves.
Once the decisions regarding Sheffield, Lopez and Maddux are made, Schuerholz will have to begin looking toward a bullpen in which every member other than John Smoltz, Ray King and Kevin Gryboski are eligible for free agency.
While Darren Holmes and Roberto Hernandez will likely never play again in Atlanta, the Braves would like to pursue the options of bringing fellow free agents Will Cunnane, Jaret Wright and Kent Mercker back next year
We either make ourselves happy or miserable.
The amount of work is the same.