I’m about to enter my fourth decade of tracking the Braves, which means I’ve seen a thing or two. The 1991 team went worst to first. Nick Esasky got vertigo. Dale Murphy got traded. Fred McGriff arrived and the press box caught fire. Francisco Cabrera swung. Sid Bream slid. Andruw Jones walked the Braves into a World Series. Heck, it was only five months ago that the Atlanta Braves announced that they were leaving Atlanta.
In sum, nothing about the Braves should shock me, but twice this calendar year they’ve surprised me in the best possible way. They’ve done things I didn’t believe the Braves as owned by Liberty Media would ever do. They sank nearly $300 million into contract extensions for five young players. Then, even as most of Atlanta was fighting Wednesday morning traffic, they announced they signed the best free-agent pitcher available.
Timeline: On Sunday, Kris Medlen walked off the mound in Port St. Lucie, Fla., holding his arm; on Monday, Brandon Beachy left a game in Clearwater two innings ahead of schedule because of biceps tightness, and Tuesday, general manager Frank Wren revealed that Medlen’s MRI revealed “some involvement in the (elbow) ligament.”
As of Tuesday night, there was a real chance the Braves would open the 2014 season with three of their four best starting pitchers — Mike Minor also is ailing — on the disabled list. As of 8:20 a.m. Wednesday, the Braves had bought a $14.1 million remedy.
I didn’t expect the Braves to sign Ervin Santana — not after spending so much on those extensions, not after their recent history of big-ticket free agents (Derek Lowe, B.J. Upton). I figured they would again try to pry Ben Sheets out of his backyard — they did it to salubrious short-term effect in 2012 — before they would get serious about a 31-year-old pitcher said to be seeking $50 million over four seasons. But that’s the thing about Wren: Just when you think you’ve got his fastball timed, he throws a change-up.
By signing Santana, the Braves underscored two points: First, that they’re drop-dead serious about winning not just someday but today, and second, that the announced move to Cobb County has become the gift that keeps on giving. Without the increased revenue that figures to flow from the new stadium and the expected rise in ticket sales, there would have been no raft of extensions and no swervin’ toward Ervin.
The assumptions under which we on the periphery have operated — that Liberty Media is a corporate name for “cheapskate,” that the Braves will never be anything more than a team of mid-table wherewithal — have been yanked from under us. This team might never return to the free-spending days of Ted Turner’s ownership, but the Braves of recent vintage wouldn’t have sunk an unbudgeted $14.1 million into one pitcher, either.
About that $14.1 million: Santana thus becomes the highest-salaried Brave for 2014, but only for 2014. This is a one-year deal at a time when, with Medlen probably bound for a second round of Tommy John surgery, the Braves need a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in the worst way. Santana isn’t a Clayton Kershaw or a Felix Hernandez, but he has compiled five seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA in the DH-laden American League. Apparently he wanted to work in the National League — he turned down $14 million from Toronto — and who could blame him?
I’ll admit it. When I heard Monday that the Braves were making inquiries about Santana, I thought, “Yeah, like that’ll happen.” Then it happened. Wren made it happen.
These are not the Braves we had come to know. These are bolder Braves, richer Braves, better Braves.