LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - They both had their moments last season. Greg Maddux went 15 straight starts without a loss and finished with the league's second-best ERA.
Gary Sheffield reached base in 52 consecutive games and hit .367 with runners in scoring position.
Now the Atlanta Braves have a decision to make. With Maddux, the ace of the pitching staff, and Sheffield, the cleanup hitter, set to become free agents after the season, should the team make a pre-emptive strike and sign the pair or move on without them?
"I don't want to be in a situation where it lingers over my head," said Sheffield, who will make $11 million this year. "Once the ball gets into my court, I'll explore (free agency). I'm not going to let my ego get in the way of me being a Brave. Everybody knows of my desire to be here, but I'm not going to be stupid either."
Maddux, who avoided an arbitration hearing by agreeing to a $14.75 million salary Monday, greeted the news Tuesday that he's not the highest-paid pitcher in the game with a sarcastic "Oh, poor me."
The Braves aren't likely to offer Maddux a multi-year deal. He will turn 37 in April and showed signs of age last year when he lasted seven innings in just 10 of his 34 starts.
"Long-term contracts are not a thing of the past," general manager John Schuerholz said, "but with the economic components we're operating with, they're going to have to be more carefully considered. How many long-term contracts can you obligate your team to?"
The Braves owe pitcher Mike Hampton $48.5 million over the next six years, part of a record $121 million deal he signed with the Rockies two years ago. They owe left fielder Chipper Jones $58 million over the next four years, center fielder Andruw Jones will be paid $62.5 million over the next five years. Closer John Smoltz is owed $21 million over the next two years.
The team would love to hold onto Sheffield, who turns 35 in November. The problem with signing him to a long-term deal isn't a lack of production - it's a lack of money.
Team president Stan Kasten has indicated the payroll will be rolled back to about $75 million during the next two or three years, making it impossible to commit $50 million to Sheffield or another hitter to replace him.
Maddux, who has made $102 million in three contracts with the Braves, found a chilly free agent market this winter. The four-time Cy Young winner who's won at least 15 games in 15 straight seasons, said he didn't receive a single multi-year offer. He eventually accepted arbitration and remained the team's highest-paid player.
"If somebody had offered (a multi-year deal) I would have taken it," Maddux said. "But this game doesn't owe me anything. What am I going to do, complain after 20 years? If you have to play one year at a time, then you play one year at a time. It's not important to me. I'm not mad I didn't get a five-year deal."
Sheffield is facing free agency for the first time. He had said he'd like to get a new contract done now, but won't instruct his agent to approach the team. He also indicated that once the season starts, he's not inclined to negotiate.
"I won't close my door (to negotiations), but I won't open it either," Sheffield said. "I agreed when I came here that I would never approach them about a contract. That's my word. I'll never ask."
Sheffield will likely want a three-year contract that averages $12 million a year. He might find a buyer next winter, though baseball's economics will probably limit his suitors to a handful of big-market teams. He also realizes he needs to put up big numbers this season for a team to commit $40 to $50 million to him.
"I understand (the Braves') concerns and their thoughts," he said. "But they've got to understand me too. I don't want to be somewhere they don't want me. Everybody looks at how many teams I've been on, but in San Diego I didn't want to leave. I was in a fire sale. I was in a fire sale in Florida. It had nothing to do with my performance. I'm going to prove myself all over again."
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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