Thirty years ago, the Atlanta Braves were desperate for a closer. They had used Gene Garber as much as possible for the previous 5½ seasons, but they simply needed someone better.
Rich “Goose” Gossage was the main player on the free agent market that winter. He had decided to leave the New York Yankees after saving 150 games in six seasons.
The Braves thought they had a great chance of landing Gossage. He had previously played with three players on Atlanta’s roster -- reliever Terry Forster and first basemen Chris Chambliss and Bob Watson.
Atlanta’s manager back then, someone named Joe Torre, flew out west to meet with Gossage and presented him a generous offer from team owner Ted Turner. The Braves offered Gossage a five-year deal worth $5.5 million, which was a lot of money back then.
But Gossage decided to stay out west and signed with the San Diego Padres instead. It was a devastating blow to the Braves, who had struck out on other free agents like Pete Rose and Dave Winfield earlier in the decade.
The Padres won the NL West in 1984 by 12 games over the Braves and then went on to the World Series. Perhaps Gossage made the difference, and perhaps if Torre had Gossage in his bullpen his job would have been saved, as Torre was dismissed following his third season as Atlanta’s manager.
The following winter, the Braves finally landed their big fish when they signed Bruce Sutter to a six-year contract. Unfortunately, the results didn’t match San Diego’s luck with Gossage, as Sutter battled shoulder issues and had only 40 saves in three seasons with the Braves.
I was reminded of the struggles the Braves had with relief pitchers last weekend when Buster Olney wrote a piece for ESPN.com. He suggested the Braves might want to trade Craig Kimbrel, the current closer who is three years away from free agency.
Olney’s column had plenty of logic. Kimbrel’s statistics are almost historic, and at some point he’s going to deserve a humongous contract. It’s very realistic to wonder if the Braves can afford such a contract, considering their obvious financial restrictions. So maybe it’s in Atlanta’s best interest to trade him soon to get a huge return in a player who can fill multiple positions.
Some baseball analysts do not believe you overpay a pitcher who is responsible for only one inning a few times a week. It’s easy to see what happened to pitchers like Sutter, and since Kimbrel throws hard it’s also easy to wonder if he’s destined for a surgical table at some point in his career.
But we’re talking about the best reliever in baseball right now. Now that Mariano Rivera has retired, there is really no debate about Kimbrel being the very best closer in the game. When you have a player who is the best at his position, it’s very difficult to give him away.
The Braves are obviously not using their extra money from the new national television deal to improve the roster. That was evident by giving Gavin Floyd, a .500 pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery, a $4 million contract for 2014 when he’s not even going to be back until mid-May.
Perhaps they are saving the extra money, estimated to be around $25 million per year moving forward, for the new stadium in Cobb County. Or maybe they are saving it to pay for the young players on the roster who are destined for big paydays.
Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Kris Medlen will all be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season. Then Kimbrel will join Freddie Freeman, Chris Johnson and Brandon Beachy on the market after the 2016 season.
The chances the Braves keep all of these players are slim. They might have to double the payroll to afford all of these players, even with the additional revenue coming from the new ballpark in 2017.
We might see a few of them traded between now and the time they hit free agency, so the team can get good return in a deal. That’s what Olney was hinting at, but the last player the Braves need to think about trading is Kimbrel.
We know how many years the Braves have struggled with the closer. If they had better relievers, the team might have more than one World Series championship. So now that they have the best in the game, Kimbrel is the one player on the roster who must be signed for the long term.
If not, the Braves will go back to the days where they seem desperate for other teams’ closers, and history has proven that didn’t always work out too well.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.