WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It will be done without fanfare or fuss, handled as quietly as Woodward meeting with Deep Throat.
Sometime during the next two or three months John Schuerholz will pick up the telephone and set in motion the negotiations that will determine the future of the Atlanta Braves.
Hoping to keep pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine off the free agent market next winter, Schuerholz plans to discuss contract extensions with each player's agent.
"It's a very complex issue," Schuerholz said. "It's not just a matter of `Why don't the Braves sign these guys?' If we do make a commitment to these two financially, there's other implications to the cost of the team and the cost of the roster."
There's been some speculation this winter that the Braves, who already have John Smoltz and Denny Neagle under contract for a combined $12.25 million for the next four years, can't afford to sign both Maddux and Glavine. Questioned Tuesday whether the club can afford four pitchers whose combined salaries will total about $30 million next year, Schuerholz said, "We probably can."
Now, the question becomes, can he do it before the season ends? If either pitcher becomes a free agent, Schuerholz can expect to pay a premium price, just as he did last November for Smoltz.
It was a calculated gamble on Schuerholz's part. He didn't want to distract Smoltz during the season, so he waited to discuss a new contract until after the World Series. When the free agent market began to heat up, Schuerholz was forced to ante up the richest-ever contract for a pitcher, signing Smoltz to a four-year deal for $31 million. Soon after, Toronto eclipsed Smoltz's record by signing Roger Clemens for more than $8 million per season.
"It distracts a player when you're negotiating during the season," Schuerholz said. "We as an organization prefer not to do that, but because of the experience with John (Smoltz), with the marketplace churning the way it was, it was costly (to wait)."
Although he's made it the club's policy not to negotiate during the season, Schuerholz plans to make an exception with Maddux and Glavine. He will open contract talks in the near future.
"There's some comfort that the two guys involved are of such character that if anyone can deal with it during the season, they can," Schuerholz said.
Glavine welcomes the opportunity to extend his contract. It's no secret he wants to remain with the Braves and it would take a contract similar to Smoltz's to keep him. He indicated he'd like to get something done before the end of the season.
"They allowed John (Smoltz) to become a free agent, so I guess there's a possibility they'll let me do it too," Glavine said. "My preference is to get it done before it gets to that point. Whenever they're ready to talk, I'm here."
As a free agent, Maddux, the winner of four Cy Young awards this decade, would undoubtedly top Clemens' $8.25 million annual salary. There's been some talk that his agent, Scott Boras, will seek to make Maddux baseball's first $10 million per year pitcher. That figure may be too rich for the Braves.
However, Maddux took millions less to sign with the Braves instead of the Yankees four years ago and the team hopes a deal in the $8.5 million range will entice him to stay.
"It's not like you don't want to play here and it's not a good organization," Smoltz said.
If Schuerholz is successful in re-signing Maddux and Glavine, he will have to cut the payroll in other areas to pay for them. That means some high-salaried veterans will go and younger players will move into their positions.
It's a formula that has kept the Braves on top for six years.
"We've manipulated the roster and made significant changes in six years," Schuerholz said. "This is really a continuation of that challenge. Pitching has been such a key factor in our success. Our preference is to maintain that roster as best we can."
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