Braves testing free-agent waters

Braves testing the waters in 'bizarre' offseason

ATLANTA -- Walt Disney World markets itself as a place where dreams come true. But when Major League Baseball general managers and their staffs arrive this weekend for the start of the Winter Meetings on Monday, the popular vacation spot will serve as a stage for the bizarre.

Based on the spending frenzy that has taken place on this year's free-agent market, Braves general manager John Schuerholz could appropriately term it a "bizarre bazaar."

With a shopping frenzy that will continue to take place at this year's meetings, one could say these general managers are venturing to a flea-market atmosphere that some may call bizarre.

And if the spending frenzy continues to shockingly provide the types of financial gains the likes that relievers Danys Baez, Jamie Walker and Justin Speier have received, this already bizarre offseason will become even more unusual.

"It's part of the landscape this time of the year," Schuerholz said. "Some years it's more crazy than others. I can't waste a lot of my time or emotional energy beating myself over deals that other teams make."

While the Orioles and Angels have accepted the fact that they would have to seemingly overpay for middle relievers such as Baez, Walker and Speier, Schuerholz has patiently awaited his opportunity to improve his own bullpen.

With closer Bob Wickman already in place, Schuerholz will head to Disney searching to find at least one proven middle man capable of serving as a setup man for Wickman. But it's safe to say he won't be spending the $6 million-plus that the Orioles used to lure Baez to Baltimore.

"We never anticipated going into the free-agent market, because our anticipation was that it would be fairly aggressive," Schuerholz said.

Having been in baseball since the start of the free-agent era, Schuerholz has seen many other years when it seemed many of his peers were seemingly overspending to fill their needs with free agents.

"I've seen it take on this character," Schuerholz said. "But I don't know if I've ever seen it match this level."

As the Angels have given Gary Matthews Jr. a five-year, $50 million contract and Speier one that will pay him $18 million over four years, Schuerholz and his peers have felt the ripple effect.

Schuerholz may cringe when an opposing general manager increases the cost of doing business on the free-agent market. But it doesn't stop him from staying in the fight which he wages against both his peers, and the rising costs that they may create by signing the likes of Juan Pierre to a five-year, $44 million contract.

General managers are obviously battling each other. But as a whole, they are all fighting the same fight -- the one that provided ever-changing financial obstacles that the market provides.

"Sometimes we weave when we should bob, and bob when we should weave," Schuerholz said. "And sometimes we find ourselves seeing stars. But that's just the way it is."

Since the Braves concluded their first losing season since 1990, Schuerholz and the Braves have been silent on the transaction front. But by picking up John Smoltz's option and re-signing Wickman in September, the veteran GM made two of his biggest offseason moves before autumn arrived.

Over the past two months, Schuerholz and his aides have looked at ways they could improve themselves offensively with a leadoff hitter. They have evaluated the possibility of improving themselves at both left field and second base.

But through it all, Schuerholz's primary focus has been on strengthening his pitching staff, which was sorely hindered by an ineffective bullpen this past season. To acquire middle-relief help, he has the option of using both Marcus Giles and Horacio Ramirez as trade bait.

While the escalated salaries Giles and Ramirez could receive as arbitration-eligible players may be seen as a negative by the Braves, neither is too expensive for many other teams. And as costs on the free-agent market rise, so does the value for these types of players, whose costs are much more measurable.

There is also the chance that Schuerholz could choose to deal either Andruw Jones or Tim Hudson. But unless he's blown away with a trade offer, both will likely be back in Atlanta for the 2007 season.

"We want to get our pitching back to the level it was for most of the past 15 years," said Schuerholz, who led the Braves to an unprecedented streak of 14 consecutive division titles by consistently building his team around a strong pitching staff.

Tom Glavine was around for much of that 15-year span and was thought to be an option to head back home to Atlanta next year. But the veteran lefty agreed to a one-year deal with the Mets on Friday.

With Smoltz, Hudson and Mike Hampton in place, there wasn't a definite need to lure Glavine back to Atlanta. But with his addition, the starting rotation would have been a better bet to dethrone the Mets as National League East division champs in 2007.

Despite not getting Glavine, Schuerholz heads to Disney intent on completing trades that will fill his team's biggest needs. He's waited patiently as other teams have participated in the free-agent-spending frenzy. Now it's his turn to make some noise in what he hopes to be the most financially-wise and talent-enhancing manner possible.

"We're prepared to strike if the deal presents itself," Schuerholz said. "What we don't know is when that deal will present itself."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.