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From the Sidelines: Atlanta no longer baseball heavyweight

I am a Braves fan. I have been for as long as I’ve been aware of baseball itself.

That means I rooted for the Bravos since the late 1980s. Many of my early memories are of watching them lose to various teams, most especially the Cincinnati Reds.

Then 1991 came and the fabled worst-to-first turnaround occurred. From there, Atlanta proceeded to win the division for 14 consecutive seasons. (Technically nobody won it in the strike-shortened 1994 season.)

Those were good days to be a Braves fan. Now, TBS no longer carries team’s games and the squad has limped to three consecutive losing seasons.

Wow. It’s a long fall from the top. So, even though that brief period of ineptitude in the late 80s served to help me learn how to deal with this current run of awfulness, I am not inclined to readily accept a 14-year streak of losing.

Apparently, however, some within the Atlanta organization do not share the fan base’s disdain for paying high ticket prices to watch a losing team.

Now, I understand that general manager Frank Wren made a strong push to land San Diego ace and Mobile native Jake Peavy. His efforts amounted to six weeks of wasted time that did little but frustrate Atlanta fans more.

So, after growing weary of Padres general manager Kevin Towers’ persistent demands to add more to the trade package, Wren informed him that Atlanta would no longer actively pursue Peavy.

He then turned his attention elsewhere in his search for a front-line starting pitcher. That shift in focus led to several weeks of A.J. Burnett rumors, which eventually proved true when Wren offered the hurler a contract said to have been worth five years and $80 million.

Atlanta fans felt confident the oft-dominant Burnett would soon be headed for The Dirty South. Those hopes proved unfounded when Burnett inked a five-year deal with the Yankees worth a reported $82.5 million.

Then came the whole Rafael Furcal fiasco. The Braves wanted him. They made him an offer. According to Wren, a verbal agreement was reached and an offer sheet sent. Yet, somehow, the shortstop is once again a Los Angeles Dodger.

What is worse than losing way too many games? That’s simple. It’s losing face. And that is exactly what Atlanta has done this offseason.

The last two months have been little more than embarrassing for the proud organization that once served as baseball’s model franchise.

The Braves have nearly been fleeced by the Padres, used as a bargaining chip by A.J. Burnett and bamboozled by Rafael Furcal’s agents.

In the midst of it all, it is becoming more and more evident that Atlanta is no longer a desirable destination for many big league players.

Moreover, it is abundantly clear that the Braves old modus operandi is no longer working in the ever-changing climate of Major League Baseball.

Their policy of refusing to grant players no-trade clauses is now revealing itself to be archaic, out-dated and counterproductive in an era where players crave stability and control second only to financial security.

The only move the team has successfully accomplished thus far may yet prove to be a bust.

Wren successfully negotiated the procurement of veteran starting pitcher Javier Vazquez and left-handed reliever Boone Logan.

While Vazquez should prove a stabilizing force to an otherwise inexperienced rotation, Wren and his associates need him to win at least 15 games in each of the next two seasons in order for him to be worth the $11.5 million per year he will be receiving.

The organization also needs Logan to achieve the dominance his potential suggests in order to keep from losing a trade in which it shipped off stud catching prospect Tyler Flowers.

So here we stand. It is January and there is little hope of the Braves finishing any better in 2009 than they did in 2008.

John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Tim Hudson all ended their seasons prematurely with significant arm injuries. All are uncertain for a return in 2009.

So the rotation shapes up as of now with Javier Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens at the top while the last three spots fill up with some combination of Jorge Campillo, Buddy Carlyle, Charlie Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes. For those scoring at home, that is not comforting.

To make matters worse, the lineup is expected to be the team’s source of strength. Also not a comforting prospect.

That lineup includes Jeff Francoeur, who is coming off a season in which he hit a paltry .239 with 11 home runs and 71 RBI. The rest of the outfield has yet to be determined. Throw in the fact that Chipper Jones will be 37 by the end of the season’s first month and you have the makings of a long, long summer in Atlanta.

So what is to be done? Well, Wren’s job isn’t easy by any stretch. But, if another legitimate ace doesn’t pop into the market soon, his proposed strategy of building the rotation with depth may be the best approach.

Derek Lowe is truly unattainable and likely not worth the contract he will command. Ben Sheets has tremendous upside, but has been injured more than Mike Hampton over the past few seasons.

So Wren’s likely best bet is to turn to someone like Oliver Perez. His numbers aren’t astounding. He is a lifetime 4.39 pitcher. But he is a lefty and he did pitch 194 innings in 2008. Moreover, he won 15 games, struck out 174 batters and compiled an impressive 3.56 ERA in 2007 for the Mets.

Still, Perez or no Perez, Wren is hoping and praying Smoltz and Glavine will find some measure of health and opt to return for one more year. That would make anything the Braves get out of Hudson in 2009 a complete bonus.

Meanwhile, Atlanta is still in the market for a power-hitting outfielder. That need will have to be filled through the trade market as the free agent list has very little to offer.

In short there is much work for Wren to do and his very best may lead to a 70-win season.